I originally wrote this post in October 2015, but it feels as relevant today as it did then. I'm a UK fan, but I'm not cheering the sanctions that the NCAA handed U of L this week. I wish we could find a way to fix the game that I love.
Like most Kentuckians, I have a little bit of a college basketball problem. I'm really, really obsessed with my team, the sport, and basically everything else surrounding the process. I spend a whole lot of time worrying about recruiting and injuries and all of the other pieces of the college basketball puzzle. Over the past few years, in the wake of investigations and scandals, I've come to a sad realization about the sport I love so very much: College Basketball is broken.
Now, I've tried really hard to not immerse myself in the tawdry details of the current goings on at the University of Louisville. The truth is, this story is more sad than salacious. Louisville escort Katina Powell's story is not funny, or sexy, or fascinating, it's the story of a sex worker who introduced her potentially underage daughters into prostitution in exchange for college basketball recruiting. Very young women were, Ms. Powell's story goes, paid to entice very young men in an effort to sway a college basketball commitment. That is, quite simply, a depressing, disgusting, and somewhat Dickensian proposition.
As a Kentuckian and a basketball fan, I don't want this tale to be true; in fact, I don't want this circus to be happening at all. I'm a UK fan, and a UK fan only -- no offense, Cards friends, it's not personal that I don't cheer for y'all; I don't cheer for anybody but my 'Cats -- and, yet, I still desperately want the Katina Powell story to just go away. It speaks badly of the city I call home. It speaks badly of the Commonwealth I love. And, it speaks badly of the sport over which I obsess and the coach whom I once revered.
The truth is, a lot of things are wrong in college athletics. Every season, we hear about recruiting violations and scandals and we get a little more immune to it all. Everybody does it, we read in the comments of the articles, these guys just got caught. The U of L basketball program will suffer some severe sanctions in light of these revelations, but within moments of ESPN's confirmation of Ms. Powell's claims, legalistic arguments of strict liability replaced the lurid details. The story became about Coach Rick Pitino's culpability, and about how much he knew about these proceedings. There was a rush to place all blame firmly at the feet of former U of L staffer Andre McGee. But, the problem is far bigger than what McGee did or what Pitino saw. The problem is that the system is broken.
The system is broken because we think nothing of casual sexism. The U of L saga tells the story of giving women as rewards and incentives. We find ourselves making distinctions like "oh, boys will be boys; if it's just strippers, it's no problem. If they paid those girls for something else, it's a bigger issue." We laugh off the "girls" as a perk of playing ball. And, more dangerously, we point our fingers at the accusers. The Pitino regime sits on the precedent that Karen Sypher was scamming the program, and it's become easy for sympathetic local media sources to frame Ms. Powell in a disgusting tableau of slut-shaming and victim-blaming. (See, if you care to, Billy Reed's egregious piece about the "book-writing prostitute." Or don't. I suggest that you don't.)
The system is broken because of the archaic and draconian rule of the NCAA. In a world where increasingly high-performing athletes are in high demand, the governing body of college sports seems increasingly outdated. For every rule change that seems designed to increase the quality of play, it seems there are ten regulating minute rules. A creative network has arisen around skirting these regulations -- from the frequently ridiculed "You can give a recruit a juice, but not a muffin at certain events" rules to far more substantive rules. We live in a culture where it seems a slippery slope exists between giving a recruit a second helping of breakfast and setting him up for a lap dance. Perhaps it's time for an overhaul of the regulating body.
And, perhaps most importantly of all, the system is broken because of a fundamental refusal to acknowledge the true nature of college sports. College basketball is a game of recruiting and a forming a pipeline to the NBA. Recruits are already tied into sneaker companies' networks through their AAU affiliations. College basketball is a multimillion dollar enterprise, and we somehow find a reason to divert profits away from the very participants whose hard work and, at times, physical wellbeing are the foundation of the game. College athletes are no longer boys who play a little ball whilst earning an education. They are a high-profile, high-earning potential commodity, and yet NCAA steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that student-athletes deserve a cut of the earnings. As fans, we willfully buy into the idea that our student-athletes are at particular schools for both the athletic and academic experiences. It's time to acknowledge the economic reality of college athletes, provide these athletes with a realistic financial stipend, and treat them as what they are -- employees of their universities.
The U of L scandal will blow over, or it won't. Coach Pitino will weather the storm, or he won't. And, in a few months, the sports media will move on to a newer, more salacious scandal. The fact remains that the sport is broken. But, those of us who love basketball keep loving the game and hoping for real change.