What was instantly dubbed the biggest college basketball scandal in history has already led to the firing of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino at the University of Louisville, and comes at a fortuitous time in the history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
When the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York City last month indicted four assistant coaches and several influential athletic apparel company officials on charges of bribery and conspiracy, the news was greeted with apocalyptic predictions.
Was this—ahem—the other shoe finally dropping about how high school stars are exploited by colleges and the sneaker makers?
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also in This Issue: Fall Sports Books; Carlton Fisk’s Homerun Photo; Marty Brennaman’s Voice; The Last American Baseball Glove Maker; Playboy’s Sports Interview Anthology; Tom Meschery’s Poetry; Remembering Connie Hawkins; A Sense of John McPhee
Was this finally the airing of the dirty laundry—the stench—that has been written about for decades, the seedy and now possibly illegal activity to benefit from the labor of “amateur” athletes who have lucrative professional potential?
Those who watch, follow, write about and certainly coach college basketball have known about these shenanigans for years. It’s been 27 years since Alexander Wolff and Armen Keteyian published “Raw Recruits,” which would make any reader want to take a shower every 10 pages or so.
A decade later, Dan Wetzel and Don Yaeger published “Sole Influence,” as the aggressive marketing of Nike and its rivals infiltrated the grassroots levels of the sport. Turn on the spigots full-blast after reading this one.
While the exposure and the outrage about these activities increased, little was done to make any changes in how the richest athletics departments, coaches and shoe companies profited from this tacitly amateur system.
Now the scenarios played out in those two books have come clashing together, just as the embattled NCAA doubles down to try and salvage the increasingly antiquated notion of amateur purity.
Some early perspectives on the indictments wonder how much they may rise above the level of being mere NCAA violations. I’m not a lawyer, but I suspect that making a legal case against what’s been going on for decades—as unsavory as it is—may also not be a slam dunk.
The alleged kickbacks do seem paltry. Auburn associate head coach Chuck Person, who comes off looking as bad as anyone not at Louisville, is accused of taking a total of $91,500 for “steering” players to Auburn to benefit Adidas, which has a contract with the Auburn athletic department.
Joe Nocera of Bloomberg, co-author of “Indentured” (Sports Biblio review here) is asking those questions. To him, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Adidas, which recently renewed its athletic contract with Louisville for $160 million, would offer financial incentives to a player to sign there:
“If that’s really the criteria, why isn’t a college scholarship a bribe? The college is trying to lure a student by offering money. Is it all that much different from what Adidas’s executive is charged with doing? The only ‘wrongdoing,’ if you can call it that, is that the athlete has violated the NCAA’s amateurism rules.
“As for what the assistant coaches have been charged with doing, there is also another word for it: ‘finder’s fee.’ Agents paying assistant coaches to steer top athletes to them is hardly a new phenomenon. Coaches who are caught doing it are invariably punished by the NCAA, and lose their livelihood. But never before has it been considered a criminal matter. Because it’s not.”
This scandal—if you want to call it that—is quite different than those that have brought the sport into ill repute from time to time over the last 65 years or so.
Most of those scandals were about point-shaving and academic fraud. Stanley Cohen’s “The Game They Played,” lauded as a canonical sports book, fleshed out the City College of New York point-shaving scandal of 1951 that also embroiled the University of Kentucky.
More recent point-shaving scandals have taken place at Arizona State and Boston College, and the University of Minnesota was stripped of a Final Four appearance for an academic fraud scandal in the early 1990s. George Dohrmann’s reporting of the latter story for the St. Paul Pioneer-Press earned him the last Pulitzer Prize given for a sports topic.
Those episodes seem quaint now, both in terms of the money involved and the hiding-in-plain-sight audacity of what’s been going on. Louisville was appealing the NCAA’s decision to vacate its 2013 national championship due to a more sinister scandal—a former assistant coach’s hiring of prostitutes and strippers for recruiting visits that Pitino claimed he knew nothing about.
I’m not buying the cries that black assistants are bearing the burden of this and not their white bosses. Person isn’t a kid; he’s a 53-year-old man who played in the NBA and is now coaching at his alma mater. He knows how this game is played, and now he stands accused doing it in corrupting fashion.
Those getting hurt the most are the (mostly) black teenage players who, as Wetzel wrote when the indictments were handed down, are not able to earn their market value as they aim for the NBA.
The real college basketball scandal is being played out in a more complicated and morally compromised fashion than in 1951. Back then, bookies and syndicates pressed kids to blow a few layups for a few coins. Today, adults hired for seven-figure salaries to oversee the best interests of unpaid players accept seamlessly delivered tens of thousands into their bank accounts and get to call it doing a more respectable business.
Fall Sports Books Guide
This week on the blog I rolled out a five-post series on the newest sports books of note, some of which are paperback versions, belated publishing dates in the U.S. and updates of classics. I’ll be updating this so don’t hesitate to let me know about books I missed (and I know I missed a lot). I’m also working up another guide for books published just ahead of the holidays, so please submit your suggestions.
- Part 1: Ali bio; sportswriting anthologies; Last Negro League World Series;
- Part 2: Cubs curse; Dr. Z; cricket photography; NHL debut season;
- Part 3: Ice Bowl; Stella Walsh; hoops essays; Great Lakes cycling; Lakers and Warriors;
- Part 4: Baseball in the ‘60s; gridiron football art; Air Raid masterminds;
- Part 5: Black athletes and civil rights; All Blacks in wartime; Bob Gibson and Denny McLain.
Fall Classic Reads to Savor
- The iconic image of Carlton Fisk’s homerun reaction in Game Six of the 1975 World Series almost wasn’t taken. The story behind how Harry Cabluck managed to get the shot in a shaking Fenway Park, and his remarkable photography career that included memorable photos during Pittsburgh’s sports renaissance of the ‘70s;
- Marty Brennaman just finished his 44th season calling the Cincinnati Reds, and the announcer who was “born and raised in radio” still manages to keep a voice of his own;
- In a small town in Texas, Nokona, an equally tiny company that’s staved off bankruptcy, remains the last American baseball glove maker, and its owner gives a simple reason why: “Because I’m crazy. This is all I know how to do;”
- A woman with a passion for the theater returns to her Pittsburgh hometown and wonders if she’s not becoming a “baseball person” and a sports fan she never was in her youth: “I was beginning to see that Pittsburgh was a place where you could be more than one kind of person.”
A Few More Good Reads
- Of the remembrances of Hugh Hefner, who died last week at 91, several went past the pictorials and orgies and delved into the literary journalism featured in Playboy, including the serialization of Norman Mailer’s “The Fight” and other compelling sporting events and figures, especially during the 1960s. Among the athletes profiled in the Playboy Interview feature was Joe Namath, at his prime. For its 50th anniversary in 2012, Playboy rounded up those interviews by genre and published e-book anthologies. ”Sports Gods” subjects included Ali, Henry Aaron, Michael Jordan, Billie Jean King, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lance Armstrong;
- Jonathan Eig, author of the new Ali biography mentioned above, on why black athletes are loved only when they’re considered harmless;
- Colin Kaepernick’s not wearing a jersey these days, but the jersey he wore while taking a knee with the 49ers is now on display at the Museum of Modern Art, part of an exhibit on the influence of athletes on the fashion world;
- After Cam Newton’s incident with a young female sportswriter this week, Sally Jenkins, an old pro, brings down a verbal barrage on the Carolina Panthers quarterback;
- It’s been 40 years since Pelé played his last game in New York, and his American soccer legacy has held up well;
- The era of paywall sports journalism may be revving up as The Athletic extends its presence into U.S. and Canadian cities, as well as national college football and basketball verticals, and most recently with the hiring of baseball writing legend Peter Gammons;
- Three independent sports journalists discuss their city-specific site projects with Sports Illustrated, including Dejan Kovacevic of DK Pittsburgh Sports, who kicked off a budding genre and turned down the advances of The Athletic;
- Bill Russell’s original retirement jersey ceremony in 1972 took place in a nearly-empty Boston Garden because Russell wanted it that way;
- At The Japan Times, an interview series continues with Tom Meschery, an iconoclastic figure in the history of the NBA. An author of a coaching diary and MFA degree-holder, his most recent book is a collection of sports poems. Nearing 79, Meschery is working on a new non-sports collection and is trying to publish a mystery novel;
- The American Basketball Association was short-lived, but its influence lives on, more than 40 years after the league folded.
Connie Hawkins, 75, was basketball hall of famer blackballed by the NBA over point-shaving allegations at the start of his professional career. He was expelled from the University of Iowa on suspicions of point-shaving, although he was never charged with a crime.
No other college offered him a scholarship; Hawkins played for the Harlem Globetrotters and was the MVP of the ABA for the Pittsburgh Pipers before joining the Phoenix Suns in 1969. “The Hawk” wrote a memoir about his youth and his fight to earn a living playing basketball. However, his NBA career lasted only seven years.
His high-flying talents helped revolutionize the position of power forward. Former NBA player and coach Doug Moe said in an ESPN “SportsCentury” profile of Hawkins: “He was the first guy on that Dr. J-Michael Jordan level. Nobody could match him.”
Dave Strader, 62, was a Hockey Hall of Fame inductee as a famed radio play-by-play voice for the Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Phoenix Coyotes and Dallas Stars, and also called games for national television networks. Despite ailing in the final stages of bile duct cancer, “The Voice” made an appearance last month at the hockey arena in Glens Falls, N.Y., his hometown, for a ceremony naming the press box after him. On Wednesday, NHL announcing legend “Doc” Emrick paid tribute to Strader on the opening night of the season.
Off the Sporting Green
The New York Times Magazine delves deeply into The Mind of John McPhee, now 86 and not exactly the easiest interview subject, but a revealing one once he starts ruminating. McPhee’s first book was “A Sense of Where You Are,” about Bill Bradley’s basketball days at Princeton.
McPhee’s forthcoming collection, “The Patch” includes some previously uncollected work going back to the 1950s, when his byline began appearing in The New Yorker. The title essay, about fishing and the death of his father, was included in the 2011 Best American Sports Writing collection.
As Sam Anderson writes in his magazine profile of McPhee:
“McPhee’s great theme has always been conservation, in the widest possible sense of the word: the endless tension between presence and absence, staying and leaving, existence and the void. It is, of course, a losing battle. . .
“Everything, for McPhee, is annals of a former world. Even his own work, he is fully aware, will disappear. . .
“And yet McPhee’s work is not melancholy, macabre, sad or defeatist. It is full of life. Learning, for him, is a way of loving the world, savoring it, before it’s gone.”
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The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 99, published Oct. 8, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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