Keith Strudler: How To Win A College Basketball Title
Every job has its perks. Take mine for example. I can use the gym at lunch, and I get a 10% discount on most items at the campus bookstore. If you’re a basketball recruit at the University of Louisville, you may get some perks as well. Now, being a college basketball recruit, or even a college basketball player, isn’t a job. But, for the sake of this argument, let’s consider it an avocation, or at least the pursuit of one. It seems that career path, at least at Louisville, may come with perks as well, rewards that extend beyond treadmills and low-cost sweatpants. According to a newly released tell-all book by former escort Katina Powell, basketball recruits from 2010 to 2014 were welcomed in the dorms with strippers and prostitutes, all paid for by a former graduate assistant basketball coach to the tune of $10,000. This story was corroborated this week by five former Louisville players and recruits, who said the dorm looked like a strip club. This, according to Powell and, what appear to be her clients, is how Louisville recruited star basketball players to campus.
If true, it seems that strategy worked fairly well, as the Cardinals went from mid-pack Big East in 2010 to a national title in 2013. Championship college basketball is facilitated by five star recruits, something that other school in Kentucky has figured out pretty well. So, if the story is true, Louisville appealed to the libido instead of the traditional pitch about classes and dining halls. And, I suppose if you’re an 18 year old superstar on the campus tour, this welcoming committee could be quite persuasive. At the very least, it’s memorable. So you won’t hear kids confusing Louisville with some other school down the road.
One person that seems to have no memory of this is Louisville head basketball coach Rick Pitino, who has denied any knowledge of this practice, assuming it even happened. He’s called for the accused former assistant coach Andre McGee to fess up and tell the whole story. And he’s assured the public he’s not leaving his post, because, of course, he had nothing to do with this. Pitino’s response raises a few obvious questions. First, if Pitino had nothing to do with it, where did McGee get the money? And realize that he was a low level assistant, not an heir to the throne. And why would he act on his own accord? That’s like a cashier at a supermarket stocking the bakery with cookies they made at home. No one has that kind of misguided initiative. And if Pitino truly didn’t know, which seems odd, then what does it say about his oversight as a head basketball coach of a national program? While no one likes a micro manager, it does seem that this kind of practice should be in any coach’s purview.
We’ll likely get an answer to this question, since the whole situation will get really hot really fast. The story itself reads like a movie script, and it’s an investigative reporter’s dream. The only thing missing is someone in a 40 foot Scarab with a kilo of narcotics, but then again, this thing ain’t over yet. But leaving aside the inquiry, the case is a reminder of several truisms in big time college sports.
First, the hunt for talent is an ongoing tinderbox in elite college athletics. While corruption is common once athletes are already enrolled in the name of eligibility, it’s likely even more problematic in the recruiting game, which is, for better or worse, probably the most important part of building a college team. Great coaching only goes so far. Great talent has a much higher ceiling. So as long as sports matter as much as they do, and particularly in the one-and-done world of college basketball, these kinds of recruiting tricks will be as ubiquitous as they are salacious. Second, this event in particular fuels fire towards giving the admissions process of star athletes back to the admissions staff. As it is, most top recruits in Division I men’s basketball and football go through a separate admissions process than other students, a back door to a back door, if you will. That means less accountability and more potential for scandal. Bring this process back to the still obfuscated world of normal admissions, and perhaps the fox might leave the henhouse.
And lastly, this story reminds us how gender stratified the world of college sports still remains. If this tale feels right out of the 1970’s, that’s because it basically is. For all the progress in the world of sports, there’s still parts that feel oddly archaic, like college teams that use prostitutes to secure a roster. It’s base, chauvinistic, and everything else university employees aren’t supposed to be. And it’s a perk, if that’s the correct term, that’s long outlasted any acceptable practice.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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