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The news that four assistant basketball coaches were arrested and charged with fraud for directing and accepting money in order to influence the decisions of highly prized youth players should shock, but not surprise. 

Sonny Vaccaro, the godfather of the connection between shoe companies and NCAA coaches and programs said these “schemes” have existed “forever.” In Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine, George Dohrmann spends eight years immersed in the high stakes and big money world of AAU basketball revealing a culture almost perfectly designed to exploit talented young athletes who are not yet allowed to benefit financially from their talents, even as others benefit mightily.

The book was published in 2012. 

Nothing new to see here and yet the arrests give everyone a chance to look more closely at things that have already been happening in plain sight. To believe that only these four coaches have engaged in this kind of activity is to stretch credulity past the breaking point. There’s every reason to believe that this behavior is the rule, rather than the exception. As Jon Solomon of the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program commented, “This is just the start.”

Basketball is a particularly ripe for this kind of abuse because of its AAU/travel basketball system that has the most promising recruits playing for teams that travel nationally and receive huge sums from sneaker and apparel companies for sponsorship. Since players can’t be paid, the next best thing is to pay the people who influence the players. Unlike football, one or two players can make a huge difference to the successes of a team, so there’s more bang for the buck; no need to spread the cash around to dozens at a time.

It isn’t complicated.

Combine this with an arbitrary rule requiring players to wait a year post high school graduation to be eligible for the NBA draft and this is what you get.

As coaches get fired over this you will hear a lot about a failure to uphold institutional values, or some other butt covering boilerplate, but it would be great if we could pass over this phase as the prime value has always been winning above honor and integrity.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino who is likely to be fired over this scandal, but let’s not forget he survived both an extortion attempt by an ex-lover and a sex-for-pay scandal involving recruits.

Pitino claimed to be “shocked” by the schemes of the “few bad actors,” but in 2014, the same Pitino also railed against the influence of shoe companies on recruits, bemoaning that, “What I personally don't like (is) I can't recruit a kid because he wears Nike on the AAU circuit,” while declaring “our pockets are lined with their [shoe companies] money.”

Pitino might’ve been more convincing saying, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that bribery is going on here.” 

As one of the indicted assistant coaches pointed out, head coaches don’t need to accept any dough because they get plenty above the table legally. The exact amounts are not clear, but Duke Coach Mike Krzyewski (not implicated in the recent charges) likely receives well over $1 million a year from Nike. In 2015, the University of Michigan recently signed a contract with Nike worth a total of $169 million which includes $12 million as a signing bonus and annual payments of right around $5 million, in addition to tens of millions of free Nike products. 

NCAA president Mark Emmert called these actions of the arrested coaches, if proven true, “An extraordinary and despicable breach of trust.”

Emmert, the head of a nominal non-profit entity with over a billion dollars of annual revenue was paid more than $1.9 million in 2015. 

Trust is an interesting word. The charter of the NCAA says that athletics must be subordinate to academics. When it comes to men’s basketball and football, it is impossible to argue that this is the case. The NCAA and Emmert breach this trust on a daily basis while hiding behind the fig leaf of amateurism.

Corrupt systems breed corruption. I would argue that even the normal operating status of the NCAA is corrupt in the moral if not legal sense, at least judged by their own charter. Emmert protects the bottom line, not athletes' status as students. 

No amount of enforcement of the “rules” will end these practices. People will simply become more careful; but you cannot put millions of dollars into circulation in a dark market and expect honorable behavior.

More importantly, the regular legal operations of the NCAA enrich a relatively small handful of individuals, like these big time coaches (and Mark Emmert), all off the uncompensated (or at least undercompensated) labor of players.

The only way out of the corruption is to bring the money out of the dark and pay the players. Yes it’s complicated, yes there will be other problems, but at least it will be honest.

It’s a start.

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