It’s long past time for the NCAA to bring all this out into the light of day by allowing athletes to receive compensation.
The FBI’s investigation into the seamy underbelly of college basketball has been fascinating to watch unfold from afar, a compendium of corruption, payola and greed played out over five months of bombshell revelations.
But now, suddenly, “afar” has hit close to home, and everything changes.
When former University of Washington basketball stars Markelle Fultz and Dejounte Murray were mentioned Friday in a Yahoo Sports report as receiving money from the ASM Sports agency, it abruptly became a national story with a local angle.
That means the potential fallout is going to become much more intensely watched and acutely felt, with the undeniable potential to do damage to the Husky basketball program.
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We don’t know yet if it’s a huge deal for UW or a trifling matter, or whether the resulting penalties will be major, minimal — or nonexistent. The fact that Fultz’s name is listed on a ledger as having received a $10,000 loan, and Murray as being paid $500, doesn’t mean the money actually changed hands.
And this is hugely important: Even if it did, there is nothing yet that links the Husky athletic department, nor its coaching staff at the time, to the alleged transaction. It is indeed possible that, as many coaches of implicated programs have already claimed, these side deals were done outside their purview, for the purpose of securing future endorsement deals or representation with no benefit to the school.
In other words, the big question still to be answered is time-honored in the annals of potential wrongdoing: What did he or she know, and when did they know it?
Maybe the FBI has those answers in the vast network of records and wiretaps they’ve amassed in the course of this investigation. But we don’t, which is why I’m going to be cautious in my assessment of any blame due to Lorenzo Romar, the coach when Fultz and Murray played their lone seasons with UW before becoming first-round NBA picks. Romar said Friday he didn’t know anything about the alleged payments until they were revealed by Yahoo on Friday.
Granted, even if they were oblivious to the transaction — and if nothing else, we’re learning that the battle among agents and apparel companies for star players is even fiercer and more cut-throat than the recruiting battles between schools — the Huskies could still be culpable in the eyes of the NCAA if the players are found to have received illegal benefits. And the last thing Washington athletic director Jennifer Cohen wants is the NCAA poking around the program.
But there is a huge difference between a one-off (or two-off) case of payments from an agent that were unknown by the university, and a lack of institutional control over the sort of pervasive bribes that already resulted in the indictment of four assistant coaches (at USC, Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State). Those coaches were alleged to have funneled players to the agency and companies providing the bribes. There is no indication whatsoever that this has occurred at Washington, despite some who are already assuming the worst.
Of course, the scope of this investigation is proving to be so vast, touching every nook and cranny of collegiate basketball, that it might be virtually impossible for the NCAA to enforce penalties without annihilating the sport itself. We’re already facing the prospect of an NCAA tournament next month that is going could be severely diminished if all the active players named by Yahoo are forced to the sidelines.
The institution that’s out of control, it appears, is the NCAA, letting a corrupt system fester under its very nose.
The real lesson from all this is that the system itself is in dire need of reform. When virtually every successful basketball school, as well as many Hall of Fame-caliber coaches, are under scrutiny, and when top players (and in many cases, their families) have come to expect payments as obligatory, the cost of doing business, well, something’s rotten in the state of basketball.
I won’t be the first to say this, and I’ll let those much smarter than I am work out the logistics, which will be a monumental task. But it’s long past time for the NCAA to bring all this out into the light of day by allowing athletes to receive compensation for the tens of millions of dollars they provide both the NCAA and its member institutions.
After all, they’re going to get a cut of the money anyway. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naïve, or not paying attention. Without fundamental changes that regulate compensation that is going to happen one way or the other, the system will slowly revert right back to the way it was before — furtive and sleazy — once the FBI moves on to other matters.
By then, we should know the ramifications of today’s revelations to Washington’s basketball program. We’ll have found out if current coach Mike Hopkins’ longtime former school, Syracuse, is implicated in any way.
It’s going to be a tense time. But let’s hope that at least it’s an instigator for positive change.