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The FBI and NCAA

FBI undercover agents have been investigating college basketball for two years, and they found everything the NCAA has largely failed to find for decades: coaches paying top recruits through shoe companies. The investigation is ongoing, and the results are only now starting to roll out, so we still have more questions than answers. But we can already be certain of a few things.   

Assistant coaches at the University of Southern California, Arizona, Auburn, and Oklahoma State were arrested for corruption. Not questioned about potential cheating, the way the NCAA does it. Arrested.

Credit John U. Bacon

The FBI is also going after the schools themselves, including the University of South Carolina and the University of Louisville, whose head coach, Rick Pitino, won the NCAA title over Michigan in 2013. When the news broke, Pitino released a statement saying he was “shocked” by the allegations. He really said that, giving pundits no choice but to invoke the famous line from Casablanca about being “shocked, shocked to find gambling” at Rick’s Café.

If that shocked Pitino, he must have been positively flabbergasted the next day when Louisville fired him and his boss, the athletic director. But if Pitino was stunned, no one else was.  

The FBI isn’t just going after people working for basketball schools, which is all the NCAA could do anyway. The FBI also arrested a top executive at Adidas, Jim Gatto. Again, arrested. One suspects there are many more arrests to come.

At a news conference in Manhattan, acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim sent a message to coaches and shoe company employees not named in their initial report: “If you yourself engaged in these activities,” he said. “I’d encourage you to call us. I think it’s better than us calling you.”

If there is an award for wry understatement, I hope Mr. Kim wins it.

We’ll learn more names and charges soon enough. But we can also take away some general conclusions.

For one, the FBI is every bit as serious about corruption as the NCAA is not. True, the NCAA does not have subpoena power. But this FBI investigation, conducted in only two years, shows just how willfully blind the NCAA’s investigators have been to the rampant corruption occurring under their noses every day. So blind, the FBI – which has bigger things to worry about these days – felt it necessary to do the NCAA investigators’ work for them, and do it far better.

Why have the NCAA’s investigators been so ineffective? The NCAA started in 1905 as a simple governing body, designed to ensure athletes were safe, they were actual students, and bona fide amateurs. That’s why the NCAA had no problem busting City College of New York for point-shaving just one year after they won the national title.

But once the NCAA started making millions, then billions, off its annual basketball tournament, it added to its original role of town sheriff the far more lucrative position of saloon keeper. You can guess how eager they were to find violations in their own bar.

Since then, the NCAA rarely takes any action unless investigations by journalists or law enforcement embarrass them badly enough to follow up.  

But this FBI investigation might be the dynamite needed to finally blow up the NCAA – or at least the corrupt regime currently running things.

Lost in all this was a little survey conducted a month ago by CBS, which asked more than 100 college coaches who was the cleanest coach. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo finished a highly respectable sixth, and Michigan’s John Beilein finished first.

Izzo has led his Spartans to the Final Four seven times, and fell short six times – often losing to the programs the FBI is now investigating.  

In 2013, Beilein’s Michigan squad lost in the final game to, yes, Rick Pitino’s Louisville squad.

Perhaps the fans of Michigan State and Michigan now view their runner-up trophies in a better light.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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