Though focusing on one disgraced coach and his former program, this exposé shows just how wide and deep is the corruption corroding men’s college basketball.
The financial figures are staggering. The Louisville basketball program, the most profitable in the nation, generated $45.6 million in 2017, the year in which the third scandal under coach Rick Pitino cost him his job. Each year, March Madness alone generates “more than $10 billion” in wagers, and in 2017, the NCAA itself made more than $1 billion in revenue, much of it from TV rights. Even websites that report on recruiting “have been acquired by or merged with larger corporate partners in deals worth at least $300 million in total.” As New York Times Magazine contributing writer Sokolove (Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater, 2014, etc.) effectively puts in perspective, the scandal that cost Pitino his job and has kept a prize recruit from eligibility during his first two years in college involves only $100,000, less than a fifth of which was ever paid by the shoe company that was supposed to funnel it to the recruit’s father. There have been no criminal charges filed against Pitino or the recruit and no evidence that either had knowledge of the payments. Yet the author’s reporting makes it clear that Pitino knew more than he has been willing to admit about how the recruiting game is played. This is true of most big-time coaches and knowledgeable fans, who know about major corporations and fast-talking hustlers trying to get their hooks into promising players as young as grade school and steer them to colleges that have contractual ties with shoe companies. It’s “a climate of moral rot” that will exist as long as college basketball generates huge sums of money while those who play the game, often from underprivileged families, are supposed to receive nothing.
While the FBI investigation continues to play itself out in court, Sokolove’s welcome context could well influence the court of public opinion.