The first blow to college basketball came in September, when a federal investigation revealed hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks being funneled to influence recruits.
The games went on under the dark cloud hanging over the sport, the season playing out while everyone wondered when the other sneaker would drop.
It did on Friday, when a Yahoo Sports report revealed documents from the federal inquiry showing more than two dozen players and their relatives received a wide range of impermissible benefits, from meals to five-figure payments.
This second black eye comes 16 days before the field of 68 is selected for the sport’s marquee event, the NCAA Tournament.
“These allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said. “Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behaviour have no place in college sports. They are an affront to all those who play by the rules.”
Now that the second blow has been struck, two questions arise: What can the NCAA do about it? Do fans even care?
In September, the Justice Department arrested 10 people, including assistant coaches from Arizona, Southern California, Auburn and Oklahoma State. The federal investigation alleged bribes and kickbacks were used to influence star players’ choice of schools, shoe sponsors, agents, tailors. Payments of up to $150,000, supplied by Adidas, were promised to at least three top high school recruits to attend two schools sponsored by the shoe company, according to federal prosecutors.
The documents obtained by Yahoo include bank records and expense reports from former NBA agent Andy Miller and his agency, ASM Sports. Duke, North Carolina, Texas, Kentucky and Michigan State are among the schools involved.
The documents, obtained in discovery phase of the investigation, also link current players including Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, Duke’s Wendell Carter and Alabama’s Collin Sexton to potential benefits that would be violations of NCAA rules.
The NCAA was obviously outraged, but is in a difficult spot. The documents have not been made public and the organization can’t exactly take action against schools or players based upon a report by a news agency.
Should the information be made public before or during the NCAA Tournament, the NCAA would be faced with potentially having to declare some of the nation’s top players ineligible and impose sanctions on many of the game’s most recognizable programs. The NCAA Tournament has generated $19.6 billion in TV money over the past 22 years and a tarnished product could hurt the bottom line.
Long term, it could force the NCAA to take a much harder look at its amateurism rules. The organization has had many discussions about this, but the magnitude of the latest allegations could spin the conversation forward much quicker.
“This problem can be solved if players are compensated,” said Don Jackson, an Alabama attorney who has worked on numerous college eligibility cases. “The NCAA is not capable of adequately policing tens of thousands of athletes around the country.”
The report has already sent ripples across the sport.
San Diego State provisionally suspended senior forward Malik Pope, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, while its compliance department investigates whether he received a $1,400 loan from an agent.
Texas is withholding junior guard Eric Davis Jr. from competition until further notice after he allegedly received, according to the documents, a $1,500 loan from ASM Sports associate Christian Dawkins.
On Saturday, Kentucky announced its internal review found no eligibility issues or rules violations with current players such as freshman forward Kevin Knox, who was mentioned in the report.
Fans may not care.
Back-room payments have been college basketball’s dirty little secret for years and many fans assume most top-name players are being paid to play.
The calendar also has turned to the part of the year when even casual fans start paying attention to college basketball. The excitement usually ramps up in February, after the football season, but it may be a delayed buzz this year because of the Olympics.
Once the Olympics are over, fans will be looking for the next big thing. The upsets and breakout performances — not to mention office pools — of March Madness will be going full speed, regardless of what’s going on behind the scenes.
“We can sit here and talk about it for days on end if we wanted to, all the things that have gone on in college basketball,” current Tennessee and former Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “I’m not surprised by any of it.”
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