Monday, September 24, 2018

Books: The Fall Of Rick Pitino, Face Of Corruption In College Sports

The Last Temptation Of Rick Pitino: A Story of Corruption, Scandal, and the Big Business of College Basketball
By Michael Sokolove
The Penguin Press; hardcover, $27; available September 25

It has been a year since college basketball was rocked by the epic corruption scandal involving Adidas, Louisville University, and many other colleges.

Large payments were laundered from Adidas through a network of coaches and fixers to athletes and their families to induce them to Adidas-branded college programs.

The scandal brought down Louisville's legendary head coach Rick Pitino, who was fired over his role in the corruption.

Acclaimed bestselling author Michael Sokolove tells the astonishing story of the scandal that has rocked the NCAA and exposed the rot and hypocrisy at the heart of big-time college sports in The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino.

This is the first fully reported book on the saga, which includes Pitino in the title because he was the most prominent figure who had also been implicated in other scandals during his time at Louisville. 

This was an elaborate, systematic machine, involving hundreds of thousands of dollars in illicit payments with money exchanged between at least one of the top shoe companies, college assistant coaches and the families of some of the nation's most coveted young basketball recruits.

"On September 26, 2017, just days before practices for a new season were to begin, college basketball experienced its biggest jolt since a coast-to-coast wave of point shaving nearly brought the whole sport down more than half a century ago," writes Sokolove. "Standing at a lectern in a federal courthouse in lower Manhattan, law enforcement officials revealed that the FBI had been investigating 'the criminal influence of money on coaches and student-athletes who participate in intercollegiate basketball' for more than two years. The FBI had used its customary methods - wiretaps, hidden cameras, and criminal suspects flipped and turned into informants - to explore the sport's murky depths, down into layers that insiders would not want anyone to see. 'We're talking in the realms of hundreds of calls...consensually recorded meetings, some videotaped meetings, probably a couple of dozen of those,' a prosecutor explained. Ten people were arrested, including assistant coaches at four major programs.

"The sprawling federal case involved recruiting, but the root cause was the same as what has plagued college basketball from the beginning: the big money coursing through it, now billions of dollars, that bypasses the unpaid workforce. Amateurism has long been a luxury of the upper classes. Many college basketball players come from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, and some from outright poverty. They are easily tempted, easily compromised, and easily persuaded to break rules that some (though perhaps a dwindling few) hold sacred...

"'Grassroots is a catchall term that encompasses the AAU teams, their tournaments and all-star events, as well as the summer camps sponsored by the major shoe companies. An NCAA blue-ribbon panel referred to it as 'ungoverned space' - as if describing a Third World conflict zone under the loose control of rival warlords. Grassroots basketball has replaced high school ball as the primary recruiting ground of college coaches. It is where players are scouted, ranked, flattered, and offered a range of benefits.

"In conversations secretly taped by the FBI, college assistant coaches talk like gangsters as they accept bribes in return for setting their players up with shady agents and money managers, whose goal is to cement business relationships for when the players reach the NBA."

Soon after this rampant corruption scheme was revealed, Pitino, who made $8 million per season and Louisville's athletic director Tom Jurich were dismissed, and fear and trembling swept through the world of major college athletics.

Rick Pitino. Photo by Jason Schott.

The figures caught up in the scandal were not outliers. They were well-known, well-liked figures in the college basketball universe, engaged in business as usual. Sokolove talks to dozens of people, including main figures such as Pitino, Jurich, youth basketball impresario Christian Dawkins, and Brian Bowen, Jr., who was Pitino's last recruit and a central figure in the probe.

Sokolove also talks with shoe company marketing legend Sonny Vaccaro, who built the pipeline that supplies grassroots basketball with cash and created the conditions in which the events in the book took place.

These figures operated in a basketball underworld not fully understood by the fans, who believe lines are drawn between youth, or "grassroots" basketball, college basketball, and professional basketball. The book shows that this murky basketball world is actually ONE ecosystem, inhabited by many of the same characters, with money being thrown around every step of the way.

Sokolove looks at the real-life cost to Bowen, Jr., a gifted player from the basketball hotbed of Saginaw, Michigan. The scandal ended his college career before it even began and could cost him his chance at the NBA even though it's possible that he never actually saw any of the money exchanged for him to enroll at Louisville.

The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino also looks into the following:
  • What happens to the billions of dollars college sports generates? Sokolove follows the money trail and breaks down the payments to universities, coaches, recruiters, and others that include expenditures like country club memberships, car allowances, and multi-million dollar salaries. The big athletic departments have dozens of employees who make well into six figures. The one place the money does not go to? The student athletes who play the games, pack the arenas, and draw big television ratings.
  • The contradiction that is Rick Pitino: Sokolove examines why one of the most talented basketball coaches of his generation denied wrongdoing one too many times, and the people of Louisville, and throughout basketball as a whole, got tired of his act. The first scandal was Pitino's one-night stand with a model and her blackmail attempt. The second involved strippers coming onto campus for periodic sex parties for his players.
  • The outrageous demands found in shoe and apparel company contracts: Sokolove reveals typical stipulations found in apparel contracts with universities, including specific rules and best practices for players, such as banning "spatting," which refers to taping used by trainers for weak ankles that can cover shoe logos, or if an athlete has a condition that requires him to wear another kind of shoe, the team's medical doctor must write the athletic company for permission.
  • How athletic companies "buy" universites: Companies like Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour don't just outfit the teams, but buy access to entire campuses. If you want to buy an actual book for class, you will have to make your way through a sea of athletic gear by a sponsoring company before purchasing one.
  • The impact that newly legalized sports betting may have on college basketball: This could create use of dirty tricks like point shaving.
  • The recent findings from the blue-ribbon college basketball panel chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: Sokolove argues that the recommendations are watered down and effectively do nothing. While the panel decries the money doled out from shoe companies to young players and their families, it is silent on the hundreds of millions of dollars flowing from those same shoe companies to the universities. The disparity sums up the hypocrisy at the heart of college sports.
  • What will happen at the NCAA trial scheduled for October 2018? The book is a primer to understand what's at stake and what we may see at the trial.
Sokolove does an incredible job of piecing together the dots of the web of conspiracy surrounding the Louisville-Adidas saga and how that has shaken major college sports to its core, showing the idea that this is amateur sports is pure fantasy.

The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino is a must-read for those that want to see college sports cleaned up from top to bottom and finally bring some fairness to the ones who make it great, the players.

1 comment:

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