“We’re not the team. You’re the team. We’re only the equipment – like the jockstraps and the helmets.”
Phil Elliott in “North Dallas Forty”
It’s easy to demonize Rick Pitino for what he’s done to the University of Louisville. Especially for me. I never liked the man, and haven’t been a fan of UL basketball since he arrived in my hometown. But I can’t say I saw this coming. I just hated that 1) he was a University of Kentucky guy, 2) he had prior NCAA problems, and 3) in replacing Denny Crum, the school chose to go with a quick fix “star” instead of growing the program with an up-and-coming coach or Crum assistant. To be perfectly candid, it probably also had something to do with the natural animus a Kentucky boy holds for a slick-haired, fast-talking New Yorker.
Particularly galling in his case is all the “shock” he voices at every scandal. He was shocked when the woman he had a ten-minute affair with on a bar table wanted more money after he paid for her “health insurance” (which was just enough to pay for an abortion). He was shocked that strippers and prostitutes were provided to recruits in the athletic dorm. He was shocked that shoe company money was being passed to a recruit.
But the source of tawdry behavior in organized sports goes much deeper than a few desperate, greedy coaches. It’s also easy to blame summer basketball. It’s relatively unsupervised. Sure, there are coaches and tournament/team coordinators. But most of those people have a profit motive in getting the best teams, the best players on their team or to their event. I’ve heard more than a few calls for abolition of “AAU” basketball.
But even this is somewhat misplaced. AAU is a different animal than the elite shoe company sponsored events. While I was writing the book, several coaches told me that AAU is now considered more of a second-tier summer basketball program. Some highly ranked teams may appear in a few AAU-sponsored events. But If a kid is truly a Division 1 prospect, he typically plays on the Adidas/Nike/Under Armour circuit because there’s more exposure.
So how about the shoe companies? Ah. There it is. Filthy lucre. According to ESPN, Louisville has a ten-year, 160 million dollar contract with Adidas. That’s a lot of money, and it’s not even in the top five. Pitino has the richest college basketball coaching contract in the country, good for 7.76 million per year. Over $2 million of that comes directly from Adidas. So why wouldn’t he think of them as his employer?
Fact is, the shoe companies are doing what businesses do. Spending money (on grassroots and college basketball) to make money (selling shoes and apparel). I’m no lawyer, but apparently the ones at the Department of Justice believe passing laundered money to a recruit is a crime. Nobody seems to object to shoe companies paying colleges and coaches to advertise their product, though. And, on the surface, it seems like an open, honest exchange between the shoe company and the school would be a win-win. The product gets exposure, and the college gets money that it could – theoretically, at least – pass on to students in benefits or lower costs.
What about the players and/or their families who are trying to get an advance on their anticipated pro career? To be sure, there are a lot of grown-ups with their hands out. One coach told me that many elite players have “handlers” as they travel the summer basketball circuit. The handlers – sometimes family, sometimes not – control access to the kid and influence financial decisions. There is no structure for monitoring or supervision of those people.
Reporters contacted the mother of the recruit apparently involved in the Louisville scandal, and she said “I don’t know anything about that.” Wouldn’t you expect an innocent person to deny that it happened? Something like, “Hell no, we didn’t get any money”?
But if I was a top-tier athlete seeing everybody around me making money from my talent, I think it’d be easy to justify taking a piece of the action. Coaches, shoe company employees, tournament organizers. Even the school recruiting me – especially the school recruiting me – is making money hand over fist. And I can’t have an I-phone out of it?
So who does that leave to blame, and what do we do about it? This commercial exchange of talented kids ends up debasing the player, the institution, and all of the adults scrambling to grab a scrap that falls from the table.
This week I refereed a youth soccer game with a guy from Holland. Before the game we started talking about youth sports and the differences between the US and Europe.
“You guys take it so seriously over here,” he said. We were putting on our thirty-dollar referee shirts, adding our badges to the pocket (annual renewal fees of $60 and $80 for high school and US Soccer, respectively). We watched as kids in uniform warmed up for their game ($300-$500 annual league fee). We each had envelopes in our bags with $50 cash for officiating sixty minutes of youth soccer.
“You know what you get for refereeing in the Netherlands?” he asked. “You get a coupon for a free beer. Half the time the referee doesn’t show up, and a parent officiates with a couple of volunteer linesman. Everybody has played the game over there, so it’s not a problem to find somebody.
“Most people play for ten or fifteen years, then referee for five years after they stop playing. I mean, the really good players are identified and go to academies. But not most kids.”
Maybe the enemy is us. I say this fully acknowledging that I am a part of the problem. I write about and referee sports, and get paid for both. I don’t know that I’d do either one for a beer, though I have on occasion done them for free. But maybe we shouldn’t be making youth sports so formal. Maybe kids don’t need $150 basketball shoes. Maybe they shouldn’t be traveling to other cities to play soccer when they’re eight years old. They see parents yelling at coaches, coaches yelling at players, and everybody yelling at the officials. What are they supposed to think? That it’s play time?