Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 7, 2019

A New Season, But An Old Issue

Let’s give credit where it is due. With so many sources of sports information, ESPN has faced declining ratings and myriad other troubles over the past few years. As for the NCAA, headlines about the principal governing body of collegiate athletics usually range from negative to dire. But the sports network and the association together produced a winner with the Champions Classic, the doubleheader featuring four storied teams that’s kicked off the major college basketball season since 2011. Two games on one night, featuring rotating matchups between Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and Michigan State – programs with a combined total of eighteen NCAA titles – give fans a taste of the drama that is this sport at its best. It’s an atmosphere that likely won’t come again until deep into next March, when the annual madness is nearing its peak. And unlike the season-ending tournament, with its inherent vagaries, this event guarantees back-to-back games featuring four marquee competitors.

Play it at Madison Square Garden, as happened earlier this week, with the four teams ranked one through four in both the AP and Coaches polls for the first time ever, and the Champions Classic becomes a headline-grabbing preview of a potential blue-chip Final Four.

On paper at least, both games were mild upsets, with #4 Duke beating #3 Kansas 68-66 and #2 Kentucky upending #1 Michigan State 69-62. Those results will likely shuffle the rankings when the sportswriters and coaches next cast their ballots, but the truth is all four teams stand a good chance of being ranked #1 at some point over the next four months. The Spartans are the slight betting favorite to cut down the nets next spring, but all four of the teams that ran up and down the hardcourt of the World’s Most Famous Arena, along with North Carolina and Florida, are the darlings of the sports books.

Of course, a season’s worth of games between now and tournament time will yield its fair measure of surprises. Teams will rise and fall, some players will underperform while others thrive in the spotlight, and somewhere along the way a Cinderella or two will demand to be fitted for that elusive glass slipper. If that broad list encompassed all the stories that will come out of the new college basketball season, it’s likely that ESPN, and especially the NCAA, would be very happy. But even the four top-ranked teams in the land playing a doubleheader at the Garden couldn’t cause fans to entirely forget that off-court issues are virtually certain to intrude on the preferred storylines.

In California a new law, which doesn’t take effect until 2023, allows student-athletes to be paid for the use of their name or likeness, and to hire agents. In response the NCAA Board of Governors voted to move ahead with developing a plan to allow similar compensation everywhere, though the committee that’s been charged with the task of filling in the details has an extremely vague mandate. Meanwhile a former Villanova defensive back now playing in the Canadian Football League filed a class action lawsuit accusing the association of violating minimum wage laws by refusing to pay athletes.

Hovering over the various efforts to fundamentally change the relationship between schools and the young people on the fields, courts, and rinks is the question of just how much that relationship has already strayed from the pristine amateurism that is supposedly at the heart of college sports. Kansas head coach Bill Self, one of the four celebrity coaches at the Champions Classic, all of whom were far better known than any of their players, is facing the possibility of NCAA sanctions for allegedly being complicit in the payments of more than $100,000 to three basketball recruits by Adidas. Perhaps as that case unfolds the association will eventually impose severe punishment on the longtime coach of the Jayhawks. But until that happens Self remains beloved on the Kansas University campus, where no one seems to mind his annual $7.15 million salary.

The relationship between KU and its coach is by no means unusual. Auburn’s Bruce Pearl was found in violation of NCAA rules at two of his previous stops, but after taking the Tigers to last spring’s Final Four, he received a five-year, $20 million contract extension. DePaul’s coach was suspended for three games and had his program placed on NCAA probation, but that didn’t stop Dave Leitao and the school from opening negotiations on a new contract.

It is easy to look at that landscape and despair, to throw up one’s hands and conclude that the status quo is permanent. Yet while the pace of change may be unacceptably slow, it now seems inevitable that change is in fact coming. The legislature of the country’s largest state has done its part. While the federal corruption investigation into big-time college basketball has been most notable for its focus on bit players – assistant coaches and hangers on – the headlines at least served to strip away any pretense that the so-called amateur ideal is still a reality at the highest levels of college sports. As the lawsuits pile up, as other states look to follow California’s lead, and as even the NCAA, however grudgingly, acknowledges that it must act, the day when student-athletes are fairly compensated for their work draws closer.

The most recognizable figures at the Champions Classic were four men on the sidelines. Self, Kentucky’s John Calipari, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski are four of the most famous head coaches in the country, and they have all become wealthy while taking teams to multiple Final Four appearances. But for all their fame, fans didn’t pack the seats at the Garden to see the coaches. In college sports, it’s long past time to start sharing the wealth.

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