Laugh at Louisville and Rick Pitino if you want, but your school could be next
The FBI investigation has crippled schools like Louisville, Auburn and Arizona, but there will be more
If you're a college basketball fan, you would be wise to check your schadenfreude at the door.
There's been no shortage of it this week, the chuckling at other schools' misfortunes in the midst of the federal investigation that has rocked this sport and several of its most powerful programs.
Because if this week you are reveling in the legal and athletic troubles of programs like the University of Louisville – which placed its Hall of Fame coach, Rick Pitino, on unpaid leave Wednesday in advance of his presumed firing once the 10-day waiting period written into his contract passes – next week the feds might be coming knocking on your school's door.
The desire to mock others' misfortunes is as great in the tribal world of college athletics as any other corner of America, save for our politics. Our visceral hatred of rival schools is one of the things that makes college sports so special. The reason ESPN's "College Gameday" has become a Saturday morning institution is because of the hundreds of signs well-lubricated students draw up to mock their opponents.
But if you're spending this week ripping the schools and rogue actors implicated in the massive FBI sting that has landed 10 people in federal custody so far – if you're laughing at Pitino and Louisville, if you're calling Oklahoma State, Auburn, USC and Arizona the dirtiest programs in college basketball, if you believe Adidas was the one shoe company that was at the root of all this corruption – well, you're about to get a lesson in the rapidly expanding tentacles of an ongoing federal investigation.
If you thought this scandal was limited to only Adidas – well, on Wednesday came reports that the FBI had subpoenaed employees of and documents from Nike's Elite Youth Basketball League grassroots division.
If you thought Adidas executive Jim Gatto was the mob boss who turned Adidas into this dirtiest part of this dirty recruiting world – well, perhaps you didn't notice that another of the businessmen arrested this week in connection to this scandal, Merl Code, used to be Nike's director of Elite Youth Basketball.
If you think Pitino and the four arrested assistant coaches are the only heads that will roll in college basketball over this, well, you've got another think coming.
Fans like to believe that their school is the school that does it the right way. And coaches love to further those narratives. Some of them are telling the truth, and try to abide by every rule in the book. Others are bald-faced liars. And you can't tell the difference between the good actors and the bad actors in this murky world of big-money amateur athletics. I know I can't.
The reason is because this sort of corruption is so baked into today's sport of college basketball. So baked in that it's not even referred to as cheating – instead, it's called getting things done. Elite recruits are routinely referred to as being "Nike kids" or "Under Armour kids" or "Adidas kids." The price of getting a recruit in the door is the price of doing business.
On CBSSports.com's Eye on College Basketball podcast, my colleague Gary Parrish spoke about this. (Parrish and Matt Norlander always do great podcasts, but I couldn't recommend this week's highly enough.)
"The role that shoe companies play in the recruitment of players, whether it's Adidas, Nike or Under Armour, has been so normalized within the sport that (coaches) don't even really consider it cheating.," Parrish said.
Alas, it is. It's also illegal. But the deep tentacles that shoe companies have in this hoops world means that it's virtually impossible to avoid these relationships. Sometimes they turn sordid, like the ones detailed in this week's announcement of a federal investigation. Sometimes they are above board. But the line between corruption and rule abiding is blurred in a world where coaches make millions while athletes play for free, where shoe companies pay millions for sponsorships but business relationships with players are strictly against the rules.
There are plenty of coaches who slept well on Tuesday night, knowing that they have always followed the rules to the letter of the law. There are plenty more who didn't sleep a wink, knowing that their name could be easily be the next one linked to this scandal.
This isn't about Pitino. It's not about a handful of assistant coaches who profited off their relationship with elite college athletes. It's not about one shoe company that allegedly paid recruits and their families handsomely to attend their preferred school.
It's about a whole system that's set up to reward this sort of behavior.
This week, you may feel absolutely certain that your school didn't participate. But I would recommend you do not celebrate now, because this scandal has the potential to spread its tentacles deeper into this sport than you'd ever imagine.
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