If you follow sports at all, it’s been hard to miss the explosive investigation into big-time college basketball.
The FBI is digging into fraud and money laundering, while staggering amounts of cash seem to slosh around famous universities, shoe companies, TV networks and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Big-name schools and players have been named almost every day, and the media has done its part by getting some sensational headlines completely wrong.
However this mess is resolved, though, we probably ought to admit that it’s a societal problem as much as an ugly sports story.
It also begs a giant question: Why do most of the biggest American universities operate what amounts to professional sports franchises?
It’s a phenomenon that does not exist anywhere else in world.
And as the current grubby FBI exposé is proving, these supposed centers of learning are not above stunningly underhanded methods while recruiting the best possible athletes.
What type of lessons are these from educational institutions?
None of this is new, of course: The legendary Wilt Chamberlain came out of Overbrook High in Philadelphia in 1955 and chose to attend the University of Kansas.
Even now, people in Kansas joke about who paid Wilt, and how much?
Winning means money, pure and simple.
That hunger for victory on the court perhaps explains why a generally respected school like Creighton University in Omaha admitted Kevin Ross in 1979 — despite the fact that Ross was functionally illiterate.
Creighton managed to keep Ross eligible through four full seasons as secretaries filled out his tests, but when he left school in 1982 and still desperately needed an education, Ross was placed in a second-grade class.
These are extreme cases, granted, but as long as there is big money in certain college sports, we’re going to find cheating of one sort or another.
Can the NCAA properly police its members?
WELL, IT came to light a few months ago that the University of North Carolina — which defeated Gonzaga in last year’s national championship game — has been shoving its best athletes into imaginary classes.
Not just occasionally, but as a matter of routine for the past 20 years.
Two solid decades of deceit.
And yet the NCAA claimed it had no jurisdiction over certain curricula decisions, and thus UNC walked completely scot-free — having won three national titles in those 20 years.
Reading or hearing of the FBI allegations over the past two weeks, I feel mildly proud of my alma mater, the University of San Francisco.
The school has a rich basketball tradition, and won two national championships in the 1950s.
Winning continued after that, but fudging grades and paying athletes for non-existent jobs became routine. We were cheating, pure and simple, aiming only for the NCAA tournament every March.
So in the summer of 1982, USF president Rev. John LoSchiavo stunned everyone at a press conference by announcing that the university was abandoning men’s varsity basketball — to maintain the school’s “integrity and reputation.”
A YEAR later, Rev. LoSchiavo and the university trustees announced that hoops would return in 1985-86, but with low-key regional recruiting and no ambition beyond providing entertainment for the student body.
And that’s where we are today.
Meanwhile, the big sluggers of college basketball are under the microscope.
No one knows quite how the sport will look once the FBI is finished, but you can make the case that, just like at San Francisco, perhaps the whole thing should be burned to the ground — then rebuilt with entirely different goals.
That certainly sounds noble and even necessary, but with so much money changing hands …
It’s not damn likely.
Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press.