Joe Henderson: Scandal will force change in NCAA cesspool

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Forget about draining the swamp. The story of Rick Pitino being in essence fired as head men’s basketball coach at Louisville following a bombshell investigation by the FBI is the first step in the draining the cesspool known as NCAA college basketball.

Those who love the sport, and I am among them, should be celebrating today. This story goes way, way, way beyond the fun, games and boolah-boolah we normally associate with trips back to campus. College basketball needs a radical change, and the first steps toward that have been taken.

In addition to being extraordinarily popular, college basketball is an easy target for those who skirt the rules and laws of this land. For decades, shadowy figures known loosely as “street agents” have existed on the periphery and exert considerable, and sometimes illegal, influence over recruiting.

Look at recruiting as the foundation of any major athletic program. Then consider that millions and maybe billions of dollars can hinge on where a high school athlete chooses to spend his college career – short as it often is.

These “street agents” can include relatives of the athlete, long-time buddies, girlfriends, or coaches of the elite travel squads that identify talented players when they’re in middle school, or even earlier. Shoe companies exert enormous influence as well, since they can outfit a player (or travel team) with exclusive, glittery swag in hopes of gaining the best athletes as future clients.

For basketball and other sports, especially soccer, colleges concentrate recruiting on athletes on these traveling teams. In many ways, high schools sports have become irrelevant for basketball.

These travel teams traverse the country to high-profile tournaments against the best competition, giving young players tremendous exposure at an early age. For the best of the best, college is just a way station en route to the NBA.

Money is at the core of all this, course. Everyone has their hand out along the way.

And so it is that four assistant men’s basketball coaches from Arizona, Oklahoma State, USC and Auburn were arrested along with a high-ranking employee of Adidas, charged with crimes that include fraud, bribery and corruption.

Simplified, the way it works is that these third-party “agents” will steer the best players to specific programs in exchange for cash. It goes all the way to the top. The best description I saw of this came when an ESPN commentator said to think of the assistant coaches who now face charges as the Watergate burglars.

Trust me, the FBI didn’t spend three years investigating this in order to nail four assistant coaches. By the time the FBI is finished, you could see states getting involved if need be. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi should be paying close attention, for instance.

Pitino, the highest-paid men’s basketball coach in the country at more than $7 million per year, ironically had the best take I have seen on how this system works.

In an interview shown on ESPN from several years ago, Pitino noted that a college coach from a school outfitted with Nike gear, for instance, can’t bother recruiting a player from a travel team sponsored by Adidas.

Brand loyalty, you know.

This story is only going to get deeper and darker as it goes along. My guess is this will touch most, if not all, of the college basketball powerhouses.

It could, and should, spark a change in the rules about how players can declare themselves professional and simply skip college to try their luck in the NBA.

At stake is the future of the NCAA’s coveted March Madness basketball tournament, along perhaps with the reputations of who knows how many high-profile coaches the country. It may even force fundamental changes at the NCAA in the way it governs college sports.

As a long-time college basketball fan, I knew this day was coming, and now it’s here – along with a case of the cold sweats on many campuses around the country. College basketball has survived many things, most notably a point-shaving scandal in the 1950s. It will survive this, but change is on the way.

It’s long overdue.

Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.