My father attended to the University of Louisville for a while, and he was a proud Louisville boy, so the recent fall of the school’s famous basketball coach has a homey ring for me. Fortunately, my father had little use for big time college sports and if he followed college basketball or the fortunes of his old school, he never passed an interest in hoops to me. Mark that as one more thing to be grateful to Dad for. For decades, my lack any rooting interest in college basketball and college football has been driven by the knowledge that they are both malign corrupting influences on higher education, students, athletes, African-Americans, communities, the sports media, and the nation’s culture. The amazing thing is that the sports don’t even hide it very well.
If you are not aware of the recent college recruitment scandal coming out of Louiville, here’s a short summary. Rick Pitino is perhaps the most famous college men’s basketball coach, and maybe the most celebrated college sports coach generally now that Joe Paterno is gone. (Here’s how closely I follow college sports: there was a time when I thought Pitino and Paterno were the same person, as in “You say Paterno, and I say Pitino…!”—which is ridiculous: Pitino is a cheat, and Paterno let children be molested so he could save his football program from bad publicity.) Pitino was placed on unpaid administrative leave after the school learned that he was a target of an FBI investigation into fraud and corruption. Yesterday, CBS identified Pitino as the “Coach-2” who played a role in funneling $100,000 to a U of L basketball recruit. That player is Brian Bower, and the 1oo grand came from Adidas “at the request of a coach,” apparently Pitino. In case you are really a college sports virgin, the NCAA has strict rules against paying athletes or offering them money to come to a school, unless the money is in the form of a phony scholarship that has nothing to do with education.
The key thing to remember is that nobody is really surprised. Well, nobody is surprised when any big time college football or college coach is caught in recruiting scandals, but Pitino has been involved in several scandals throughout his career:
- As a student, Pitino played guard at the University of Massachusetts, began his coaching career as an assistant at at the University of Hawaii in 1974. He has a stint as interim head coach, and during his tenure, the basketball program was sanctioned by the NCAA. Pitino was implicated in eight of the 64 violations, for such conduct as giving plane tickets to a player, arranging for athletes to acquire used cars, and handing out coupons to team members for free fast food.
Never mind, though: Pitino was hired for his first head coaching job in 1978, at Boston University. He moved to the NBA as a New York Knicks assistant coach, then, in 1985 took the over the coaching at basketball powerhouse Providence,, leading the team to the Final Four. In 1989, he took over at Kentucky, which had just been disciplined for multiple recruitment and other violations. Pitino rebuilt the program, and Kentucky won the national title in 1996. The NBA beckoned once more, and he coached the Boston Celtics for four years. Pitino returned to college coaching in 2001, and at Louisville, with tytpical success. His teams went to two Final Fours, and won the a national title in 2013.
- In the meantime, Pitino had an affair with the wife of the team’s equipment manager. The woman, Karen Sypher, was later convicted of trying to extort Pitino for millions of dollars.
This kind of thing would get most executives fired even in the most unethical companies.
- In 2015, a former director of basketball operations was found to have provided strippers and prostitutes to players and recruits in a campus dormitory over several years. The school declared itself ineligible for postseason play in 2016, and the NCAA. suspended Pitino for the first five games of the coming season.
Writes Mediaite’s John Ziegler:
“Pitino laughably claimed that he had no idea that an assistant was holding numerous stripper parties for recruits in a campus building named for Pitino’s own brother-in-law who was killed in 9/11. At the time, Outside the Lines, the journalistic arm of ESPN, did two solid shows on the scandal, but the rest of the ESPN machine went totally silent and the bombshell story quickly died. Had ESPN wanted Pitino gone at that time, they easily could have made that happened, but it would have been against the self-interest of the network and the specific basketball announcers who were buddies with Pitino.”
Pitino was the highest-paid coach in basketball at more than $7 million a year when he was finally ousted at Louisville. How can this be? Why, he won, of course! He made money for the college, and the networks! That’s all that mattered. That’s all these colleges care about, and that’s all alumni and donors care about, and that’s all the sportswriters care about—as long as none of the cheating is discovered, of course, because THAT hurts the team and TV ratings.
College basketball (football, too, but let’s keep our apocalyptic scandals sport-specific for now) has long demanded a measure of suspension of disbelief in order to participate. Think of the ecosystem: College and university basketball programs competing for the services of a finite number of talented teenagers who are needed to win games, provide March Madness television programming and, most significantly, justify the expense required to pay coaches millions of dollars, build giant arenas and provide bragging rights for wealthy alumni. Insert: AAU coaches, personal “advisors”, rapacious shoe-and-apparel companies, and come on, let’s be serious…[Pitino] was at all times, exactly what television networks—and frankly all of us in the media—were dishing out: the bench maestro in a tailored suit, working officials, teaching, sweating just enough that you couldn’t see it. And winning. Winning a lot.
He also notes parenthetically:
“It’s naïve to call it the “end” of Pitino’s career; he might choose to walk away wealthy and race thoroughbreds, but if he isn’t charged or jailed: Do not kid yourself. Barring a complete overhaul of the system, there will be a market for his services.”
And finally, here is a look at the King’s Pass, from the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations List:
11. The King’s Pass, The Star Syndrome, or “What Will We Do Without Him?”
One will often hear unethical behavior excused because the person involved is so important, so accomplished, and has done such great things for so many people that we should look the other way, just this once. This is a terribly dangerous mindset, because celebrities and powerful public figures come to depend on it. Their achievements, in their own minds and those of their supporters and fans, have earned them a more lenient ethical standard. This pass for bad behavior is as insidious as it is pervasive, and should be recognized and rejected whenever it raises its slimy head. In fact, the more respectable and accomplished an individual is, the more damage he or she can do through unethical conduct, because such individuals engender great trust. Thus the corrupting influence on the individual of The King’s Pass leads to the corruption of others, through