RIVER RAT: Ugly times

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River Rat

By Peter W. Zubaty, Sports Editor

College basketball and football fans love to gnash their teeth about the NCAA and its lack of even-handedness when disciplining its member schools. Here in the Bluegrass State, the eternal impasse with North Carolina is a particular cause célèbre.

There have been threats in recent years of schools making up the “Power Five” conferences (SEC, Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten, ACC) splitting off and going their own way, so as to keep a bigger piece of the TV pie.

It’s hit close to home for a lot of University of Louisville fans in the wake of the Katina Powell scandal, with the NCAA issuing probation and threatening the Cardinals’ 2013 championship banner be pulled from the rafters and vacated. It was a battle that seemed destined to go to the courts, with U of L doing anything it can to keep dragging out the process, the way UNC has.

But all of that stuff changed in a big way Tuesday. The FBI has forced the NCAA to get its act together and do something. The feds did it with what looks to just be the tip of the iceberg with this opening round of arrests of assistant coaches, shoe company execs, financial advisers, agents and other handlers and go-betweens involved in a broad-ranged corruption plot to funnel money to top-flight basketball recruits (and their handlers) to entice them to play for Adidas-affiliated schools and AAU programs, and later sign their allegiance with the company once they get into the pros.

This is really ugly. This is the FBI, not the NCAA, making these allegations, with recorded conversations to back them up. They have no moneyed interest in the status quo of big-time college sports, the way the NCAA and its member institutions do when it comes to TV and shoe company contracts. And it appears it will get uglier, to the point of shaking the foundation of college sports in a way never before imagined.

I can’t see any way the University of Louisville can go forward with Rick Pitino and Tom Jurich in its employ any longer. Whether the coach and AD had active knowledge or not is immaterial, really. There have been too many dances with scandal’s razor edge in the past decade, and it’s best to just move on and salvage what the program can for the future, whatever that may look like.

Clearly, the FBI bombshell will prove devastating for the future of Louisville’s men’s basketball program, one already under NCAA scrutiny from the Powell case, and the NCAA will be forced to act. But it obviously goes well beyond just U of L, ensnaring other high-profile schools (such as preseason No. 1 Arizona) that will almost certainly have players ruled ineligible. Other fallout will come in the form of probations and postseason bans, as the NCAA finds itself with an FBI-forged spine for a change.

But before any college hoops fans start taking joy in a rival’s misery, remember how totally, incredibly, extremely highly unlikely it is that Adidas and its affiliated schools and AAU programs are going to be the only ones tainted by this. I would anticipate that those affiliated with Nike and Under Armor will also be caught up in this federal investigation. As reported by several news outlets:

“Today’s arrests should serve as a warning to others choosing to conduct business this way in the world of college athletics: We have your playbook,” said Bill Sweeney, the assistant director in charge of the New York FBI field office. “Our investigation is ongoing. And we are conducting additional interviews as I speak.”

It’s pretty heavy stuff that should make all fans of college basketball and football take a pause. We’re entering a whole new world.

But really, this is the bombshell that anybody who is honest about the way big-time college sports operates, and has always operated, certainly saw coming.

Big-time college sports has been tainted by scandal for as long as it’s been around. Kentucky got the death penalty in the 1950s and faced NCAA wrath again in the late 1980s, and Western Kentucky was forced to vacate its 1971 Final Four appearance; just a few examples that bear this out. But it got more extreme each year, especially as the influx of TV and shoe company money swelled to 10 figures, yet so-called “amateur” athletes were told to shut up and be thankful for the scholarship and the honor of representing their university while billions they’ll never see flowed into the school and conference coffers. How galling must it have been for those outstanding athletes to be playing one of the NCAA-licensed video games and seeing an avatar with his number, physical dimensions and skills programmed into it, knowing he wouldn't see dime one for the use of his likeness? At least that seems to have been shut down for now, fortunately. It’s no wonder this black market has thrived for many decades.

Big-time college sports is a dirty game, and has been for much longer than you’d care to believe. One way or another, the bombshell dropped upon the college sports world figures to reverberate in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.