Throughout the history of the NCAA, you'd be hard pressed to find a man revered more deeply—and universally—than John Wooden.
He was known in his time for his work as a college basketball coach, but when he passed away last Friday night, we mourned the loss of a person. A pillar of integrity, a holdover from a simpler time, in an era that's fallen prey to pragmatism and decaying principles. And as the soul of amateur athletics continues to twist in the wind, hanging on for dear life, it's the soul of someone like Wooden that reminds us why we're fighting to protect this stuff in the first place.
He could have wrapped himself in championship banners and bathed in the money and fame that came with his professional success, but he always remained right-sized, taking great pains to remind himself and his players that the present is a gift. "Talent is God-given," he once said.
"Fame is man-given. Be grateful."
"Conceit is self-given. Be careful."
That's John Wooden, one of the greatest there ever was. Not as a coach, but as a person. He was, in a very literal sense, a treasure to the people around him, and to the people he left behind.
And John Wooden cheated.
Not in an ambiguous way, either. No, John Wooden's UCLA program cheated. Real, honest-to-God (but not the NCAA) cheating. You can read more here, you can Google "Sam Gilbert UCLA," or you can go back through the archives and find the L.A. Times and NCAA Investigations that ultimately landed UCLA on two years' probation. In any case, a 1978 book by Jack Scott, Bill Walton: On the Road with the Portland Trail Blazers, painted a pretty definitive picture.
"It's hard for me to have a proper perspective on financial matters, since I've always had whatever I wanted since I enrolled at UCLA."
"I hate to say anything that may hurt UCLA, but I can't be quiet when I see what the NCAA is doing to Jerry Tarkanian... The NCAA is working night and day to get Jerry, but no one from the NCAA ever questioned me during my four years at UCLA!"**
For the record, this isn't about tearing at Wooden's cloak of immortality. But facts are facts, and it's not a matter of debate as to whether Wooden's fabled "Pyramid of Success" overlooked a key aspect of UCLA's historic dominance in the 1970s—they broke the rules.
A booster named Sam Gilbert, once accused of laundering drug money and later proven to be UCLA basketball's greatest benefactor, "arranged and paid for abortions for players’ friends and helped athletes get discounts on cars, stereos and airline tickets," according to published reports cited in this New York Times article. We know this. It's the sort of transgression that defies "spin."
But we don't care. Instead, we cherish his memory, with talented writers like Dave D'Alessandro writing breathlessly, "He represented another era, and more than anyone else, he was of his time. There will never be another like him." And it's all true.
But why does nobody care that the greatest college coach of all time cheated?
(** Separate quotes regarding UCLA's transgressions were originally attributed to Bill Walton, as they were in this 2006 article from Yahoo! Sports, but since publication, we received a complaint from a third source regarding UCLA's involvement. We have since tracked down the book, which was out of print, and corrected the quotes. They have been removed from the Yahoo! piece.)
To just about anyone familiar with the history of college sports, juxtaposing Pete Carroll with John Wooden borders on blasphemy. Not in a hyperbolic sense, either. Really, truly, blasphemy—the New York Times Magazine once wrote, "John Wooden comes as close to an embodiment of Jesus Christ as anyone on the current sporting scene."
And next to him, you have Pete Carroll, the snake that ditched USC as soon as he sensed the NCAA hammer coming down. Just seems... wrong.
But last Thursday's report from the NCAA infractions committee—centering on the dynastic stretch of Pete Carroll's tenure at USC—demands drastic measures. And whatever blasphemy underpins the Carroll-Wooden pairing, it pales in comparison to the heresy from the NCAA, as college sports' governing body blithely ignores reality year after year, blindly adhering to doctrine that's been flawed from the outset.
Mind you, this "doctrine" blatantly contradicts just about every decision the NCAA and its schools make elsewhere. And yet, here's this from the NCAA's sermon from Thursday:
This case is a window onto a landscape of elite college athletes and certain individuals close to them who, in the course of their relationships, disregard NCAA rules and regulations. [...] Their world included professional sports agents, "runners" and "handlers," "friends" and family, many of whom were eager to cash in early on expected lucrative professional contracts. The actions of those professional agents and their associates, with the knowledge and acquiescence of the athletes, struck at the heart of the NCAA's Principle of Amateurism, which states that participation in intercollegiate athletics should be "motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental, and social benefits to be derived." Their actions also threatened the efforts of the NCAA and its member institutions to sponsor and support amateur competition at the collegiate level.
See, on the surface, it works. The idea that sports agents and their associates could strike a fatal blow at a "Principle of Amateurism" seems reasonable enough. Same with the notion that "participation in intercollegiate athletics should be motivated primarily by education, and by the physical, mental, and social benefits to be derived." All these ideas make sense in theory. But coming from the NCAA, downright insulting.
Like they're the foil in a bad morality play, except nobody's picking up on the motif here.
Because, sure, participating in amateur athletics should be motivated by those things, but what about the people governing them? How can an organization that exists solely to generate more revenue from these "intercollegiate athletics" stand there with a straight face, telling athletes that their sole purpose in all of this is to be gratified with "physical, mental and social benefits."
With the NCAA, it's "do as we say, and look the other way when we do the exact opposite."
None of which is to absolve anyone else's role in this whole mess at Southern Cal—the impropriety, the institutional indifference, the four-years-running investigation—with something of this scale, you can't blame just one person, or call one governing body the bogeyman. We'll come back to the NCAA in a bit, and feel free to skip past this section if you're tired of reading about the USC investigation, but we have to offer some background here.
For one, there's Reggie Bush. He created this mess. Not when he and his family knowingly broke the rules and accepted cash and gifts from agents... That probably happens more than any of us realize. But with Bush, he and his family accepted those benefits with the implication that he'd one day return the favor. You can read the entire timeline here, but basically, Bush's family accepted cash, a car and even a house from a marketing firm, all with the implication that after finishing at Southern Cal, Bush would provide a return on this investment, signing with the firm.
To the virgin ears of the NCAA and its defenders, that whole thing sounds positively apocalyptic. He used his talent and celebrity to move his family into a better home? The audacity!
But it was a business agreement that made sense for both sides. That's fine. The only problem arose when Bush and his family abruptly abandoned the deal, leaving his would-be agents without a client, having wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars on what was essentially the advance to Bush's future professional contract.
Without any other leverage—because Bush couldn't have signed a real contract—the agents threatened to go public with proof that Bush had violated NCAA eligibility guidelines. And when Bush and his representatives still refused to pay, the agents followed through on their threat, talking to Yahoo! Sports in 2006, prompting an expansive investigation, and leading us to present day.
With the avalanche of allegations, damning testimony and "death penalties" that have ensued since 2006, it may cloud the issue for some. But make no mistake: Much of what's being discussed today could have been avoided if Bush and his family had played by the rules back then. Not the NCAA's rules, but the rules of levelheaded, decent, business associates.
He didn't. So his former-benefactors played the only card they had in their deck.
As for the agents... This is what happens when you traffic your services among amateur athletes. Pretty simple. We don't have to condemn them for treating college football like a business—everybody else does—but we shouldn't console them for finding out that a "wink-and-a-handshake" deal with a 20 year-old kid and his opportunistic parents could somehow go awry.
And then there's USC's athletic department, with its see-no-evil, hear-no-evil histrionics. That whole routine was as patently absurd as the NCAA... Put it this way: a college is a small place. An athletic department is even smaller. To think that members of the USC athletic department had no idea that the biggest star in their midst might be taking extra benefits—driving a nice car around campus, commuting to a nice house to visit his family—is f**ing ridiculous. That's the only way to put it.
There was an entire staff of football coaches that recruited Reggie Bush. They became intimately acquainted with his family's situation throughout the recruiting process in high school, and then micromanaged nearly every detail of his activities in college... That's just how college football works. The intimacy with each and every player can't really be exaggerated. It's not like it's impossible to keep track of 100 or so football players, let alone one of the most recognizable faces in their program.
You're telling me USC's people wouldn't notice when Bush's family suddenly moves into a house that's beyond their means, and their biggest superstar shows up with extra cash and a new car? No? Here is USC's statement from Thursday, wool comfortably blanketing their precious, untainted eyes:
There is a systemic problem facing college athletes today: unscrupulous sports agents and sports marketers. The question is how do we identify them and keep them away from our student-athletes? To provide us with recommendations about the best way to protect our student-athletes and their families from those who seek to violate the rules, we have retained the Freeh Group, headed by former federal judge and ex-FBI director Louis Freeh.
Our success in athletics and the outstanding individuals we recruit make our student-athletes an attractive target for those seeking to take unfair advantage of them.
"Really guys, we had no idea about all the agents!"
Never mind that Pete Carroll had approved an internship for Bush with Reebok consultant Mike Ornstein, a marketing agent who Bush later signed with. Never mind that Bush's would-be agents—the ones funneling his family hundreds of thousands of dollars—were reportedly visitors to the USC locker room on two separate occasions. Never mind that you'd have to be completely and totally detached from reality to think Bush wasn't involved in something like this.
Never mind all that, and don't worry about the future. The USC athletic department is going to hire an ex-FBI director to make sense of all this. PROACTIVE!
And finally, there's Pete Carroll. Of all the people involved in the USC investigation, Carroll probably bears the least responsibility. It's laughable to think that he didn't know about Bush's rules violations, but from a broader standpoint, what did he do wrong? Pete Carroll's job as a football coach is to take care of his players, win games, and help build the profile of the University. He did each of those things.
Rules were broken, but he's hardly the only coach that fractured a few bylaws during his program's heyday. Look back at Wooden again. If we're going to asses the character of coaches like Wooden or N.C. State's Jim Valvano independent of their NCAA transgressions, we can't condemn someone else for operating under the same principle. Carroll helped a lot of people during his time at USC, he built the profile of the school, and as a coach, he was as good as it gets.
Thursday's sweeping, institutional denials from USC were as arrogant as they were absurd, but as for Carroll's role in propagating that narrative the past few years, what else would you have him do? He did his best to protect the program. Again, that's his job. After all the allegations and testimony had come to light, it was pretty reprehensible for SC to continue with their narrative that they're somehow the victims of an overzealous infractions committee, and these predatory agents, lurking in the shadows of the L.A. coliseum. But that's not Carroll's fault...
With Pete Carroll, his actions speak for themselves. When it became clear that there had been real damage done to the program under his watch, he removed himself from the situation.
Should we vilify him for pursuing other opportunities after USC, and signing with the Seattle Seahawks for $35 million? You could. But keep in mind, that borrows from the exact same logic that governs NCAA athletes; the idea that we should all forsake personal gains in the name of protecting an illusion of some grander virtue. Whatever. At the end of the day, this is a business.
With this video released shortly after the NCAA's findings were made public, Carroll stays on message with his ex-colleagues at the Southern Cal athletic department. But again, what do you expect him to do? It's up to USC to admit they knew about the agents and take a mature attitude about all this. And if they won't, then Carroll shouldn't.
He's gone, and that already speaks volumes about his culpability in all this.
That said, doesn't this video look like a parody of what happens after an NCAA Investigation? I mean, really. The background, Carroll staring into the camera, feigning shock. It looks like a Saturday Night Live skit.
And that's where we are with the NCAA. This week's USC findings, and the reactions from folks like Carroll, just add to an already ridiculous collection of characters and themes. The NCAA sells itself as a children's book, but it's really one, gigantic satire of itself.
Ordinarily, this would be hilarious. But even in 2010, not enough people get the joke.
For now, the themes from the USC investigation may feel novel.
It was Reggie Bush's fault, we learned. It was compounded by overzealous agents and a consciously apathetic athletic department. Carroll's legacy is forever tarnished, we say. But in time, we'll see this investigation as no different than what happened at Alabama in the '90s, or Miami before them. Just another big time program that stepped over the line at the wrong time, and with the wrong people looking.
There's nothing "new" about the USC investigation. The hours of journalism dedicated to uncovering it may have helped sell papers or nab pageviews, but let's not award a Pulitzer. Focusing our attention on USC misses the point. What happened with Reggie Bush and Southern Cal was a symptom, not the disease.
I mentioned earlier that the NCAA's tacit message to its athletes is, "Do as we say, and look the other way when we do the exact opposite." Would you like a few examples?
First, there's the bowl system. The cadre of presidents and athletic directors in charge of college football's postseason have steadfastly refused to entertain the idea of a playoff in Division 1-A football, ostensibly in the name of "preserving tradition." Implementing a playoff would render the regular season meaningless, they say, and the pageantry of bowl season is one of college football's greatest virtues.
But nobody's kidding themselves with that argument anymore. It's about money. The NCAA and its participating schools make boatloads of it under the current championship model, and while deciding the National Champion with a playoff might pacify those purists who prefer to have the games decide a winner, it just doesn't make financial sense, because money would be funneled to a smaller number of schools under that model.
These days, they don't even pretend to engage debate anymore. Faced with criticism from no less than the U.S. Congress, BCS commissioner Bill Hancock responded:
"While I appreciate your interest, I believe that decisions about college football should be made by university presidents, athletics directors, coaches and conference commissioners rather than by members of Congress."
The end of his statement just as easily could have read, "...rather than by fans." Or, "...rather than by sportswriters." Or, "...rather than by players." Or, "...rather than by coaches." And on and on.
Basically, the people in charge have a good thing going, and to risk losing the money that comes with a bowl system doesn't sit well with university presidents, athletic directors, coaches and conference commissioners of Division 1 college football. Among that group, all from schools that collect huge checks thanks to the current model, who's going to disagree?
This isn't a cry for a playoff system, either. Just a perfect example.
College sports are all about money. It's a business. However romanticized the idea of a playoff becomes among fans, it's still not a sound a business decision. This is what prompts someone like Hancock to say of the BCS, "We're planning as though it's going to be here in 2040."
Then there's the NCAA tournament. You want to talk about betraying principles and jeopardizing the chastity of an institution? How 'bout the NCAA's recent flirtation with a 96-team NCAA Tournament. Here, we have a playoff, and it's completely perfect.
But that didn't stop the NCAA from trying to expand the tournament to 96 teams, in hopes of a better television contract. At one point, the move to add 96-teams was termed "inevitable," with an NCAA spokesman offering this explanation:
It starts on the same day. Technically speaking it starts two days later than the current championship because it would eliminate the opening round game. Rather than starting on Tuesday, it would start on Thursday. Start at the same time as the current championship does. It would conclude on the same day. It would conclude on Monday that the current championship does, as well.
It would not require any more competition venues. In fact, it would require one fewer venues in terms of what we normally operate with now.
Just curious, though: where were the soliloquies about the sanctity of the regular season when this move was proposed? A 96-team tournament would basically render the regular season a formality, and it'd turn our 64-team March bliss into a bloated, confusing, caricature of itself.
But it could make more money...
Sure, the NCAA eventually relented to the pressure from fans and nixed the 96-team idea. But the fact remains, the majority of those involved with the NCAA were completely open to the idea, based solely upon the premise that a 96-team field would bring with it a more lucrative television deal.
What's the lesson here? The NCAA exists to manage the business of college athletics, not to preserve the integrity therein. How do we know this? With regard to the postseasons in their two "revenue" sports, the NCAA occupies complete opposite ends of the spectrum. With football, it's all about tradition and the regular season; in basketball, the regular season and tradition are casually dismissed. The common denominator:
Individual schools are no different. It's fitting that while one athletic program gets raked over the coals because a few kids accepting money that'd ultimately be a fraction of their eventual earnings, we also have some of the biggest athletic programs in the country holding each other hostage, jockeying for hundreds of millions of dollars, making shadowy alliances with conference commissioners, and playing those commissioners off one another, driving up the price.
That was a really long sentence, yes. But there's been a lot going on in college sports lately.
Two gigantic stories, to be exact. In the eyes of most fans and sportswriters, one story centers on integrity, the other on intrigue. What will the future of college football look like? ... Well, it won't look like Pete Carroll's USC. Thank God, the NCAA made a statement.
But step back for a second. There's a reason we touched on the details of USC's investigation. The Bush stuff. He reneged on a contract and got a better deal. Turned his back on the guys who had taken care of him and his family. How is that different than what's happening with conference realignment? Think about it.
You have a bunch of athletic directors ignoring contracts signed years ago, making unofficial deals with commissioners that have no business talking to them in the first place, and generally, operating like selfish, greedy pigs. That sound like Reggie? A little bit?
And we really expect superstar athletes to be so naive as to ignore the behavior of the NCAA, their schools, and their high powered coaches (gunning for an extension after every winning season)? The athletes are just supposed to play along in all this, just because the NCAA says so? It makes you see someone like Pete Carroll or John Wooden in a more sympathetic light. Sure, they may have circumvented the system, but the system makes ZERO sense to begin with.
One of the greatest ironies in all this is that the same people who would scoff at the notion of paying college athletes are the ones who look to John Wooden as a paragon of what college coaching should be. Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel has been the principal reporter behind the investigative journalism that opened Pandora's Box at USC. In 2006, he penned a lengthy column on the matter urging the NCAA to "Take Back The Title." This past week, he also weighed in on Wooden:
He represented a simpler time in sports, when coaches comported themselves with calm and class.
He did the things no one does. He was a constant in the swirling tides of change, a reminder of another way of living, a simpler way of conducting one’s business. He coached to coach, not for big contracts or endless fame.
Go back and read those quotes from Bill Walton. " The NCAA is working night and day to get Jerry [Tarkanian], but no one from the NCAA ever questioned me during my four years at UCLA!" Guess where I got that quote? A 2006 article by Yahoo's Dan Wetzel, nine months before he called for USC to forfeit it title. His conclusion then, talking about the Bruins:
There are no angels in this business, no white hats and black hats as the NCAA would like people to believe with its public relations campaign of a rule book. Everything is a shade of grey. Everything is situational ethics. Everything is pick your poison.
Even the great UCLA legacy. Even the great John Wooden.
But with USC it's different, apparently. From Wetzel's "Take Their Title" column:
And now the NCAA needs to take something, too – Bush's retroactive eligibility and a season and a half of USC victories, setting in motion the BCS' removal of the Trojans' 2004 national championship and the Downtown Athletic Club's repossession of Bush's 2005 Heisman Trophy.
Anything less, any bit of situational justice, would be a slap in the face of fair play and another in the NCAA's long history of double-standard enforcement.
And this isn't to single out Wetzel, one of the better columnists and reporters in the business. But it proves the most important lesson in all of this. Everyone associated with college sports—covering it, playing it, coaching it, running it from the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis—is a walking, talking contradiction.
"Everything is a shade of gray. Everything is situational ethics"
"Anything less, any bit of situational justice, would be a slap in the face of fair play and another in the NCAA's long history of double-standard enforcement."
You can't blame someone like Wetzel. The NCAA's massive hypocrisy is obvious, and it can tie even the best of us in knots. What's less clear, though, is what negative consequences the hypocrisy can have on everyone involved with the process. Even with the USC situation, it's tough to spot the victims. That's where Dan Wetzel comes in.
What happens, inevitably, is a perversion of justice and judgment, where we stand and applaud the NCAA for "showing teeth" with their USC decision one day, and the next, we mourn the loss of "the greatest coach ever," who would have been guilty of the exact same violations. Ultimately, it's a waste of everyone's time. As Coach Wooden said, "Never mistake activity for achievement."
If we stand for nothing, and today's column blatant contradicts tomorrow's investigative report, what have we really achieved besides activity?
Until now, I've never felt strongly one way or the other about paying college athletes. But recent events prompted me to take a closer look at what's really going on in the NCAA, and it's obvious. I used to compare college athletics to baseball's steroid era, where you could safely assume that just about everybody was breaking the rules in one way or another. But that's not quite right.
It's more like a bunch of people smoking pot. Are they breaking the rules? Yeah, but they're breaking rules that don't really make much sense in the first place. Even some of the most virtuous can't help but be hypocritical in that scenario.
In today's NCAA, money is king, and the demand for their product informs how they supply it, what conferences each school plays in, and more. Everyone's reaping the rewards of the free market. That includes the athletes. Because just as the market for marijuana keeps people selling pot regardless of the rules, college players will get paid until the end of time. It's just a function of the free market. It makes sense for agents to invest $300,000 in Reggie Bush; the only problems arise because it's done in the shadows, without regulation.
So end the farce of "amateur athletics." Just stop it. Nobody's fooled now, and it's only getting more ridiculous with all this expansion talk. Four "super conferences" basically amounts to four divisions of a pro sport. Just get it over with. Pay the players that make all this prosperity possible. Do it now, before the system spins out of control and destroys itself. College sports are great, and it'd be sad, but it could happen.
Wooden put it best, I think. "Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be."