Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 10, 2019

March Madness Awaits, As Does A Day Of Reckoning

With Selection Sunday now just seven days away, with conference tournaments either already underway or about to tip-off, it’s time for college basketball to take its annual turn at center stage of our sports. A week from now hardcourt fans will be debating the decisions of the ten-member selection committee that will award thirty-six at-large bids and seed those teams plus the thirty-two conference winners who automatically advance to the NCAA Division I men’s tournament. One day later many of those same fans will do it all over again over a second committee’s choices for the women’s bracket.

Already the first four spots in the men’s tournament have been decided. The Murray State Racers became the first squad with a ticket to March Madness, winning the Ohio Valley Conference championship Saturday evening, 77-65 over Belmont. One day later Liberty University, with 15,000 students on its Lynchburg, Virginia campus, and more than six times that number taking online courses, beat rival Lipscomb 74-68 to claim the Atlantic Sun Conference crown. The Runnin’ Bulldogs of Gardner-Webb University took ownership of the Big South Conference title and a first-time appearance in the Big Dance by outlasting Belmont, 76-65. And in the Missouri Valley Conference title tilt, Bradley trailed Northern Iowa by as many as eighteen points in the second half before storming back to seize a 57-54 victory. It was, not surprisingly, the biggest comeback in the history of the MVC championship game.

While these four teams will always be the first ones into this year’s bracket, odds are they will also be among the first schools out. Apart from a few loyal alumni, few fans are likely to have their carefully crafted brackets broken if Gardner-Webb or Liberty exit the tournament in its very early days. The name programs and the major conference tournaments are still to come this week, from Orleans Arena in Las Vegas to Spectrum Center in Charlotte to Madison Square Garden.

Still, some team will ultimately prove to be this year’s Loyola-Chicago, a low seed with matching expectations that gets both hot and lucky at just the right time and makes a surprising run that, for a week or two at least, turns a previously ignored basketball program into the toast of sports fans across the land. Against all odds perhaps this year will also see the second coming of a UMBC, a number sixteen seed that pulls off the impossible by taking down a number one in the first round. It is the ever-present possibility of the unexpected and the improbable that gives the tournament its luster and attracts fans who don’t give college basketball a second thought forty-nine weeks of the year.

Which means that three stories gracing sports pages in the past few days couldn’t have come at a worse time for the NCAA and the schools and television networks that reap millions from both the men’s and women’s Division I tournaments.

Tuesday in Manhattan U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan sentenced three men to prison for their roles in the burgeoning scandal of graft and payola in the recruiting of high school athletes to major college programs. James Gatto, formerly a marketing executive at Adidas was sentenced to nine months, while Merl Code, another ex-employee of the shoe company, and sports agent Christian Dawkins each received six month sentences. All three were convicted last fall of defrauding the University of Louisville, and in Gatto’s case North Carolina State and the University of Kansas as well, by using cash payments to steer highly rated high school players to certain schools.

The sentences were relatively light, in part because Judge Kaplan was not convinced that the schools were truly the victims of the scheme. Rather he saw the greatest damage inflicted on the young men whose basketball talent was the prize at stake for both the defendants and the schools. Kaplan cited Brian Bowen Jr., a prized prospect who has been declared ineligible and who now plays professionally in Australia. But the news of the sentencing also reminded fans that two more trials are yet to come, and that the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball is ongoing.

Any doubts about that were quashed on Friday, when Louisiana State University suspended head coach Will Wade, shortly after evidence of a taped phone call between Wade and Dawkins was leaked to the press. In it the coach boasts that a recruit has been given “a hell of an offer,” but hasn’t committed because a third party “didn’t get enough of (a) piece of the pie in the deal.” The recruit is believed to be freshman guard Javonte Smart, who is averaging better than eleven points a game for the tenth-ranked Tigers.

In addition to suspending Wade, LSU athletic director Joe Aleva sat Smart for the team’s final game against Vanderbilt rather than risk later having to forfeit the result should the player later be ruled ineligible by the NCAA. For his trouble Aleva was booed and subjected to profane chants by LSU fans at the game, which the Tigers won 80-59.

While unfortunate for Aleva, and for anyone who still clings to the apparently antique notion that college sports should be contested by amateur student-athletes, the reaction of fans at Peter Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge Saturday night amounted to an endorsement of the third story related to college athletics, Friday’s federal court decision cracking open the door to compensating college players. In Oakland, California, Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that current rules barring payments beyond scholarships and related educational costs violated antitrust laws.

While stopping well short of the plaintiffs’ hope in the class action case brought by a group of football and basketball players for a fully open market, Wilken’s decision chips away at the NCAA’s fervent opposition to any kind of compensation beyond the value of a scholarship, even as the Association and its member schools profit handsomely from the players efforts. Wilken acknowledged this, writing that “the extraordinary revenues that defendants derive from these sports” demonstrate that capping players’ compensation at scholarships and related costs “is not commensurate with the value that they create.”

For now, attention will turn back to the action on the court, rather than in the courts. But after all the brackets have been busted and the confetti has fallen at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for the men and at Amalie Arena in Tampa for the women, the hard and decidedly less romantic truth about the power of money in big-time college sports will remain. Whether by criminal indictment or civil litigation, that truth is gradually being exposed, and as it is, change is surely coming.


  1. Shades of Watergate: Follow the money…

    I hope they get a solution to this problem sooner than later.

    • It’s a festering mess Allan, and one that’s likely to get a lot worse in terms of what’s revealed before it starts to get better. Thanks as always.


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