This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 13 QB Crossroads Issue. Subscribe today!
On Sept. 26, federal prosecutors announced corruption charges against four NCAA assistant basketball coaches, the fruits of an FBI "pay for play" investigation that also ultimately resulted in Rick Pitino's firing at Louisville. It was an unparalleled three-year probe, yet somehow it felt as if we've been here before.
Since CCNY players shaved points in the early 1950s, the game has experienced a glut of misconduct that has ranged from the embarrassing (see: the 2009 extortion case that ensnared Pitino) to the criminal (the two Arizona State basketball players who pleaded guilty in 1997 to throwing four regular-season games). The first school to receive the "death penalty" from the NCAA was not the famously corrupt SMU football teams of the 1980s but Kentucky's basketball team in 1952-53, after three players were enmeshed in a point-shaving scheme of their own. Southwestern Louisiana canceled two seasons in the mid-'70s after the NCAA found more than 120 violations -- including an assistant coach forging a high school principal's signature on a recruit's transcript. Michigan basketball lost banners, NCAA tournament eligibility and dozens of wins from the 1990s because of a booster who paid players thousands of dollars.
These scandals are as much a part of the game as questionable fouls or buzzer beaters. In fact, impropriety in college basketball isn't a fault in the fabric of the game but a thread, and fans are reacting accordingly. It's hard to get outraged.
The increasing impropriety is in part a result of an expansive media landscape. "With the explosion of social media, it's a matter of time before people are able to pry into your personal life," says Jay Williams, a former Duke standout-turned-ESPN commentator. "All this stuff is just being brought to light because of the amount of eyeballs associated with it."
That's true, and college basketball is also a business-an extremely profitable business. Teams such as Kentucky, Kansas and, yes, Louisville bring in tens of millions of dollars to their universities and offer mass exposure for sponsors such as Nike, Under Armour and Adidas, as well as for local corporations that sit close to arenas and cater to basketball fans. That means that in some cities, the five players on the basketball court are among the most fiscally critical, even if they see none of the profits. Louisville basketball, for example, brought in more than $45 million in total revenue in 2015, nearly double what the program made in 2008.
"There is a dark side to business that sometimes people do not want to see," Williams says. "When a kid is proclaimed to be the next truth coming out [of high school], there are going to be people that throw money at this kid." As Williams' coach at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski, told reporters in October, "Before these kids ever come to us, we are not the only ones recruiting these youngsters."
That's why college hoops coaches are often college hoops cynics. Many programs see the underground economy of college basketball as a thoroughfare to the success that can vault a school into the upper echelons of the sport, with little regard for the potential consequences. Because often, there are none. Take, for example, North Carolina, which just avoided major sanctions after a wide-ranging academic fraud investigation that began in 2010.
But what's galling isn't just that the scandals continue to occur. It's that we as fans are all too quick to look the other way. Part of that is the "college" in college basketball -- the connection we have to the institutions, whether we're alumni, neighbors or just fans of the mascots. So even if rules are flouted at the school we support, we'll continue to buy jerseys and season tickets and go to the bars and restaurants near the arena after games because of that sense of community and loyalty. North Carolina remained fourth in national attendance every year of its seven-year investigation.
And, of course, winning trumps all. A scandal might take down a banner or force a season to be vacated, but no NCAA investigation can erase the memory of a title run or a championship. Pitino might have lost a job at Louisville, but he can never lose his string of success in the hearts and minds of Cardinals fans who witnessed it.
"We don't have a good model," Krzyzewski said about the state of the game and the scandals it invites. He was reacting to recent events, but it's an ageless refrain, one that equally applies to college basketball's past and, inevitably, to its future.