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Amateur basketball, right, wrong, and something in between

The fallout from the FBI’s crackdown on the shoe money long powering college basketball aught to make you rethink the prism through we see good and evil. Because here, it’s more complicated than that.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Michigan v Louisville Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Black and white makes it easier to process.

It’s easier to tuck some things neatly into drawers labeled GOOD and BAD and never care to think about them again. It’s how we’ve been conditioned to work over centuries, or something like that. Just neatly tuck Rick Pitino in the drawer on the right, he’ll be fine there. You’ve got two reports due at work tomorrow, and these twitter gags don’t write themselves. Just get the tweets off, whether they be scathing moralist criticism or stupid gags. Pitino cheat. Pitino break law. Pitino bad.

Today, college basketball was delivered the most earth-shaking, disrupting blow the sport’s taken since the NBA effectively created the one-and-done rule in the mid-aughts. The FBI announced actual, criminal conspiracy charges against all sorts of power brokers in the college basketball power complex, ranging from shoe company higher-ups to Power 5 assistant coaches. This is not the NCAA’s yackety-sax enforcement crew or the kangaroo court that often follows. This is the goddamned Department of Justice, with real US Attorneys, with subpoena power, with warrants and wiretaps and judges that sent people to real, actual prison. Arizona assistant Book Richardson probably started his Tuesday with a nice breakfast, coffee, perhaps a NPR podcast or two. He’ll end it in federal custody, with five different federal conspiracy charges in two, and facing up to 60 years in prison. We’re not messing around anymore, here.

That’s just the beginning, too. People like Richardson, and Chuck Person, and Adidas executive Jim Gatto will talk soon, because that’s what happens when the feds get involved. They’ll talk, the next group will talk, and so on and so forth until college basketball’s long-known underbelly will be exposed to the light of day. Perhaps we won’t even need to wait that long. The complaint, which you can read here, already spills the beans on at least two programs. Per the allegations, Adidas seemed to write a fat six-figure check to Brian Bowen’s family to secure the player’s services on behalf of Louisville. And with the school under NCAA sanctions for the Katina Powell-Andre McGee saga already, perhaps this is the end of Rick Pitino, Tom Jurich, or hell, maybe Louisville Basketball as a whole. Perhaps that end comes tomorrow, with a smattering of Louisville reporters teasing BIG ‘OL NEWS set to come in the morning.

And that’s where we’ll start, and that’s how we’ll leave Rick Pitino and Tom Jurich. Cheaters. Immoral. Bad. Rule breakers. Lawless. Immoral. Perhaps none of these things are untrue. Despite retaining the plausible deniability all executives and leaders try to retain, if you believe Pitino didn’t know anything about hundred-thousand-dollar payments from shoe companies, well, uh, sorry. I knew about it. You knew about it. I knew about it. College basketball’s worst kept secret was the deep-seeded control apparel brands could exhibit over teenage boys. It has been for years. If your basketball team participates in a hundred-thousand dollar transaction for human capital and the head coach doesn’t know, it’s either cheating or administrative malpractice. Choose the empty semantics we use to describe your professional death, I guess.

Anyway, that’s what we’ll do. Pitino bad, because there are rules, and he broke them. Not just even just rules here, but laws. We’re invoking the Department of Justice. Something, something, rule of law, or whatever.

But, wait. Hold on for a second. Distill this scandal, at least in the case of Pitino, Bowen, & Louisville, to the most basic level. Find the what we’re really mad about here. It’s a player’s family receiving the compensation the market says he’s worth for his basketball services, and a school and company that find him worth such. If you’re the NCAA, or a collegiate administrator, perhaps that’s morally reprehensible to you. If you’re not? Peel the lens of amateurism from which we view college athletics away, and perhaps it doesn’t quite seem so nefarious. It’s just an employee receiving compensation for services, after all.

That’s not to say these aren’t victimless crimes or acts, or that there’s some altruistic motive at play with the actors here. There’s not. Agents exist to make money, so do shoe companies, and the depths to which some go to secure a player on a future representation or endorsement are staggering. I’ve seen that industry up-close. Types known as “handlers” tend to latch onto AAU athletes at a young age and turn young players into commodities that can be bought and sold. If hijacking the life decisions of a teenager for profit seems gross, it damn well should.

There’s countless others that will count as collateral damage as the DOJ wars for months and years to come with The System, too. Numerous players will have their college careers tossed aside, and won’t ever see any of the cash guaranteed to them for committing to a chosen school. That’ll derail professional dreams, where the payout eventually comes. You can find others further down the line, too. Other athletes will be robbed of postseason appearances, maybe even of their teams as a whole, because adults couldn’t obey a set of flawed rules. Good, honest people & lower-level employees in athletics organizations will lose jobs. Same at AAU programs, same at shoe companies. There are possible consequences when even bad rules are broken, and people like Pitino are aware of these possible consequences before seeking fat payments from Adidas to players.

That’s perhaps why, in this situation, it’s not as easy to classify Pitino, or Louisville, or Richardson, or Adidas, as just simply good or bad. There’s nuance and complexity here, and simply viewing this blockbuster of a mess as a binary morality test isn’t particularly helpful. That doesn’t serve anyone, other than Jared Lorenzen’s IP attorney.

A favorable reading might see a character as Pitino as a chaotic good, disregarding a violently flawed system to provide just compensation to student-athletes. That’s probably idealistic, as good players mean wins which mean money and jobs for coaches. Brian Bowen wouldn’t get a fat check to attend Louisville with the risks present unless it doing so would directly benefit someone involved. But still, in the grand scheme of things, we’re not exactly dealing with heinous crimes here. If you’re treating it as such, you’re probably being either disingenuous or intentionally obtuse. Whatever.

Perhaps what’s more important is understanding how we got here in the first place. If NCAA athletes were permitted to profit off their likeness much as any other person in the world can, would we have this issue? Perhaps not. If that were the case, could stricter regulation and monitoring of AAU basketball and the agent scene keep bad actors from taking advantage of even younger athletes? It should. Hell, should AAU basketball even exist as it does today? Maybe not.

Whether or not Rick Pitino is good or bad doesn’t really matter, and isn’t worth your thought, time, or anything else. He’ll be gone in short order.

What’s really worth considering is how the hell we ended up in the first place, and the wide, sweeping changes that are needed to fix amateur basketball in America today.

For as it exists today, good or bad, it’s completely broken.