Editorial: When basketball trumps everything

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

In the world of ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, college success is largely about how wicked your crossover dribble is or how great your shooting stroke from behind the 3-point arc.

For many of the rest of us who don’t sit on the sidelines for a living, our list of college success is likely ordered much differently. For example, figuring out how to pay for it ranks pretty high.

This is worth keeping in mind as Bilas and other commentators bloviate on the slowly unfolding college basketball recruiting scandal that has now entered the NCAA penalty stage after the completion of federal fraud trials.

Bilas is worthy of special attention, and not just because in KU country it is always fun to pick on a Duke graduate. No, Bilas earlier this month made comments during an interview on Kansas City’s WHB 810 sports radio station that illustrate how far the “brain trust” of college basketball will go to protect the seedy side of the sport.

“I don’t think any of this stuff is criminal. I think they came up with a novel theory to make it criminal,” Bilas said of federal prosecutors who have won multiple fraud convictions in the case.

Since when did it become a novel idea that you’ve committed a crime by doing the following: 1. You pay people hundreds of thousands of dollars to lie on federal financial aid forms. 2. Upon submitting those false forms, hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial aid and scholarships are provided to people who otherwise wouldn’t have qualified. 3. You end up benefiting professionally by delivering a prized asset — a recruit — to an important athletic department client.

Lying, or encouraging people to lie, to profit at the expense of others is pretty much a classic fraud case or conspiracy to commit fraud, which is what James Gatto, Merl Code and T.J. Gassnola all have been convicted of. If we simply allowed such activity, life would be as rough and tumble as a Big East basketball game, to put it in words Bilas may appreciate.

Bilas and his fellow commentators are obsessed with changing the rules so college players can be paid. That’s really immaterial here, since life doesn’t allow you to simply break the law without consequences because you think some other part of society should change.

Absent that argument, what Bilas and others want you to believe is that no one profited at the expense of someone else; a victimless crime is not a crime. Such arguments only show how much Bilas and others think the world revolves around basketball.

Bilas takes exception to the idea that the universities are victims in this case. The government rightly argues that universities very well may face significant penalties from the NCAA for playing ineligible players. The penalties may involve both money and loss of certain privileges. Bilas called the idea of universities as victims “ludicrous.”

“It is a like a bank defrauding its customers and the bank saying ‘hey, we are the victim because we got government penalties for defrauding our customers.'”

Now, that is interesting to hear from Bilas. In this analogy, the university is the bank. Is Bilas saying places like the University of Kansas defrauded someone? Who are these customers he speaks of? Will Bilas raise no objections if KU and others are penalized by the NCAA for defrauding customers? Don’t bet on it.

Bilas argues that universities got exactly what they wanted out of this scheme: prized recruits. Again, the world revolves around a small orange basketball rather than a large orange star. Bilas fails to recognize that an athletic department and a university are not one in the same. It is possible for an athletic department to get what it wants but for the university to be harmed. Imagine this scenario: An athletic department get hits with NCAA penalties that involve a postseason ban. The ban triggers contract clauses that result in the athletic department losing TV and sponsorship dollars. The university has to pull money from its general operating budget to pay for athletic department debt and other operating expenses to keep the athletic enterprise solvent.

Has the university been hurt? Are there maybe some professors and students who have nothing to do with athletics that have felt some unwarranted pain?

Granted, universities can be unsympathetic victims. But government prosecutors worked with what they had. The biggest difficulty with this case is that the most sympathetic victims can’t easily be identified by name, but they exist.

Consider this: A finite number of college basketball scholarships are available in America. There are more people who want a full-ride basketball scholarship than there are scholarships. Given those two facts, every time somebody who’s ineligible gets a scholarship means somebody who was eligible doesn’t.

Finding those people is difficult because it wasn’t the last person to get cut from the KU team, for instance. They are good enough that they got a scholarship at another school. But someone then didn’t make the cut at that school and so on.

Eventually, you get to those players who are on the edge of being good enough to get a full-ride scholarship. There were some who didn’t get one because people committed fraud. Did some of those people who missed out never go on to college? It is easy to imagine that would be the case. They simply couldn’t afford it. How much different are their lives because that opportunity was stolen?

Maybe you just chalk them all up as basketball players, and you think that is just the price of being in this sport. But what about low-income students who qualify for Pell grants? Did you know that college basketball players on scholarship can qualify for Pell grants? In the 2017-18 season, the latest year for which figures are available, KU’s men’s team had six players receiving $34,000 in Pell grants.

What if some of the people ineligible for receiving basketball scholarships also received Pell grants? Pell grants, like scholarships, are finite in number. Do we just shrug our shoulders at this game taking college money from those who need it most?

If you believe the world revolves around basketball, you’re darn right you do.

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