Hard to believe but it has been more than five months since the FBI announced the first federal charges against a motley assortment of assistant coaches, a middling shoe executive and a few other of the Remoras that swim along the underbelly of college basketball.
At the time, we wondered, jokingly, if there’d be enough teams left standing and unsullied to fill out a full NCAA tournament bracket come March.
Well, here it is March, and the bracket is stuffed – many of the rungs occupied by teams implicated in the FBI investigation. Not a single one has been too ashamed to accept a bid.
And here in all my early attempts at bracketology, I had Arizona coach Sean Miller in my first four out (of a job). But he’s leading a conference champion, an under-seeded No. 4 and probably the best player in the whole shooting match (forward DeAndre Ayton). Even for a team coming from the side of the Continental Divide where less is expected, the Wildcats are formidable .
And who is the most nefarious character entering the Big Dance? Not any of the players presumed to have profited from their vertical leap, nor the coach who may or may not be on tape lining up a six-figure payoff for his five-star big man (denied roundly by all involved). Not the various wheedlers or chiselers who work backstage. But rather Duke’s Grayson Allen, who once tripped a man in Reno just to watch him fall. He is back to doing the kind of petty stuff that makes him just the perfect Blue Devil. Thus, there can be no defeat too painful for him.
An FBI assistant director declared last fall that, “All of those charged today contributed to a pay-to-play culture that has no business in college basketball. ... Today's arrests should serve as a warning to others – we have your playbook.”
But how much do such dire warnings resonate this week, when it is time to fill out that office bracket and form powerful, if temporary, bonds to those teams you count upon to survive and advance?
The truth is that this tournament is so compelling and such a part of the country’s competitive culture that not even a federal investigation of mob-busting scope can dent the anticipation for the first round.
In addition, we wonder how seriously are we to take the elevation of the usual college basketball skullduggery to the level of a federal offense? Especially with seemingly so few consequences here at the onset of the sport’s premier month? Sure, Rick Pitino isn’t a part of the festivities. But you can consider that simply penance for a long accumulation of sins rather than any kind of swift justice.
Can you honestly say that the shadow of an FBI investigation will dampen your excitement when the buzzer-beaters begin to fall and the on-air talent begins hyperventilating? That’s the ultimate compliment that can be paid this tournament: It is bigger than the combined flaws of all who play it.
The NCAA basketball tournament is steeped in hypocrisy. It’s economic model is farcical. And, dang it, it is irresistible.
In the months that passed since the initial FBI splash, there has been a good deal of blow back – just not against the alleged wrong-doers.
Much outrage has been focused on a usual suspect, the NCAA, and its inability to enforce what many consider arcane rules. Where, exactly, was the designated enforcement body while all this shoe money was being showered on its ‘amateurs’?
And there is a good deal of rightful questioning about how the FBI ever got involved in such matters, stretching the definition of fraud like the criminal code was made of Silly Putty. What we have here is a crime where the only victim is one doddering ideal, pursued by an agency that has only about 10,000 more important wrongs to right.
A recent Washington Post story questioning the probity and impact of the FBI investigation points out up high that, “So far, the three-plus-year federal inquiry has resulted in the arrests of mostly low-level figures in the college sports black market, and the criminal charges they face stem from NCAA rules many economists deem quaint and outmoded, if not exploitative.”
The cloud over college basketball covers everyone involved. It is more a pervasive fog.
As a former federal prosecutor and current law professor at Georgia Washington named Randall Eliason told the Post, “If you take away the NCAA rules, there's no criminal case here. There are some legitimate questions about whether this was a wise use of resources.”
It is just so hard to know where to aim your outrage.
So, we pause this investigation in order to bring you another raucous tournament.