Corruption in college basketball practically has its own film genre. Movies like “He Got Game” and “Blue Chips” have long captured the essence of the dark side of college athletics. For example, in “He Got Game,” Ray Allen’s notable Jesus Shuttlesworth character is recruited to colleges by boosters, coaches and agents, who offer him everything from cash to his father’s release from prison.
Similarly, in “Blue Chips,” Coach Pete Bell, while under pressure to win, illegally offers top recruits (who happen to be played by NBA legends Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal) lavish items, including cars, houses and even a tractor.
Although entertaining, both of these 20-year-old movies seemed like outdated exaggerations of the behind-the-scenes illegal recruiting of student athletes by future stakeholders in their collegiate and professional careers. That is, until this week.
The alleged events surrounding the FBI’s recent fraud and corruption charges against ten major Division I basketball coaches, financial advisors, and shoe company executives are playing out like a movie in their own right. If true, the allegations will confirm that Hollywood’s portrayal of the broken college athletics system is in no way a misrepresentation, and has been representing a hidden reality for decades.
The reasons for Louisville head coach Rick Pitino’s administrative leave and claims against many other coaches across the country exemplify the dangerous overlap between the entertainment value and the “win at all costs” mentality pervasive in college athletics. It is also Pitino’s now-ironic cameo role in the film “Blue Chips,” which best indicates the longtime blur between entertainment, college sports, and greed.
The underlying issue is that the financial incentives of major Division I basketball coaches and shoe companies are not necessarily aligned with the best interests of the players: teenage high school basketball stars who hope to achieve their dreams of obtaining a college scholarship and pursuing a professional basketball career.
While college coaches face significant pressure from their home institutions to win games, shoe company agents are also under pressure to find and associate their brand with the next LeBron James. As a result, the recruiting draw of Ameteur Athletic Union (AAU) sponsorships from shoe companies foster a culture in which concealed relationships with coaches can develop. They share a gross view of high school student athletes as nothing more than potential assets.
There is no easy solution to this problem. As with any business, stakeholders – ranging from alumni, coaches and players to the agents and sports apparel companies themselves – reap the benefits of a great product, but also fall into the trap of greed. What the NCAA, and now the U.S. legal system, should do is figure out a more effective method of separating shoe companies from college coaches and players.
While the NBA’s reallowance of high school players to enter the draft would reduce the liability of college programs, it does not solve the overarching problem that many people within the industry are looking to take advantage of young, talented and often naïve athletes without actually caring for their futures.
A better alternative is a reform of the AAU system through the use of NCAA regulated funds to support tournaments and related recruiting events. While the change would neither eliminate the pressure to win nor stop all avenues of illegal recruiting, it would at least reduce the influence of shoe companies in the recruitment of top players to a “Big State” or “Western U.”
In the famous words of Spike Lee, director of “He Got Game,” “it’s gotta be the shoes” that go first from college basketball recruiting.