An Amateur Athletic Union basketball coach claiming to be on the take. A "sports mentor"-cum-aspiring runner allegedly handing out goodies. Mysterious agents and financial advisers operating in the shadows. A cousin -- and really, isn't it always a cousin? -- supposedly along for the ride. In the wake of a USA TODAY Sports report that Ben McLemore's former AAU coach accepted cash, trips, meals and luxury lodging in exchange for steering the former Kansas guard toward future NBA representation, uncertainties abound.
What did McLemore know about this? What did Kansas know? How will the NCAA's intrepid enforcement staff get to the bottom of this? Who, if anyone, will end up getting punished?
Lost in the news, however, are two basic questions. Questions that aren't asked nearly enough. Questions that ought to be asked -- or better yet, scrawled on NCAA president Mark Emmert's office walls, "Zero Dark Thirty"-style -- every time a college sports scandal erupts because someone took something from somebody in exchange for something else.
Namely, what's the actual crime? And who are the actual victims?
Granted, a rule may have been broken. Specifically, a NCAA bylaw that states that athletes are ineligible if they, their friends or their relatives receive benefits from an agent, in turn defined as anyone who "seeks to obtain any type of financial gain or benefit from securing a prospective student-athlete's enrollment at an educational institution or from a student-athlete's potential earnings as a professional athlete." Like all of the association's amateurism edicts, this rule ostensibly exists to shield college athletes from
Candyman and the Hamburglar the supposed evils of commercial exploitation; like all of said edicts, it effectively bars McLemore, his peers and everyone they know from engaging in the same quid pro quo transactions the rest of us take for granted.
Here's the nitty-gritty: St. Louis-based AAU coach Darius Cobb asserts that he received two cash payments of $5,000 from Rodney Blackstock, the founder of a North Carolina-based sports mentoring organization. Cobb also says he went on three all-expense paid trips to Los Angeles -- joined by Blackstock and twice by Richard Boyd, McLemore's cousin -- to meet with sports agents and financial advisers hoping to represent McLemore. The men stayed at a Four Seasons and a posh hotel located on Rodeo Drive. They ate for free. They went to a Los Angeles Clippers game gratis. Airfare was covered. In return, Cobb says, he introduced McLemore's mother to Blackstock at a Kansas basketball game. And all of this is bad. Very, very bad. At least by the NCAA's morally irreproachable amateurism standards.
Which are, it should be noted, utterly alien to the wider culture around them.
Extremely wealthy people fork over staggering amounts of cash to attend political fundraisers. They're not going for the eloquent private speeches. Salespeople take clients out to lavish dinners, then fete them inside luxury boxes. Food and games aren't the main point. Prospective employers will pay for your flight to a job interview. Casinos will comp your room and drinks. Timeshare salespeople will take you on a cruise. Account reps will take you golfing and to gentlemen's establishments. Light beer manufacturers intent on securing your brand allegiance will subsidize your cable and network college sports viewing. Educational institutions intent on securing your student-athletic enrollment will have totally and coincidentally attractive young members of the opposite sex show you around campus. In America, people don't just give you stuff in exchange for money, labor or other favors; sometimes, they give you stuff simply to listen to their pitch. Particularly when your time and talents are in demand. Access is currency. It has value. And that's fine. Not always seemly. But okay. Definitely not a crime, because no one is being harmed.
Go back to the McLemore story. Did Cobb pull a hamstring sitting on a wallet stuffed with cash? Was Boyd emotionally scarred from allegedly watching a Clippers game he didn't buy tickets for? (Note: a Clippers game from 2013, and not the preceding quarter-century.) The answer, of course, is no. And no. In fact, the only entity possibly injured by this whole set of utterly unremarkable transactions is Kansas -- which as of now doesn't even appear to have even been involved, much like McLemore -- and that's only because the NCAA could punish the school for a violation of amateurism rules, the very same rules that make Cobb and Blackstock's Excellent Adventure a problem in the first place.
Assuming your name isn't Colonel Cathcart, does any of that make rational sense?
Look, I've assailed the NCAA's motives many, many times. For argument's sake, suppose the people who run college sports are well-intentioned. Selflessly devoted to the welfare of students who just happen to play sports. Like a cheer squad. (Also: pretend University of Texas women's athletic director Christine Plonsky's statement that four-year guaranteed scholarships breeds "entitlement" among college athletes never happened.) If the association and its member schools truly want to protect college athletes from shady, exploitative grifters and parasitic, money-sopping middlemen, here's what they should do: Stop creating a market for both.
After all, a future NBA lottery pick such as McLemore has value. Lots. Agents and financial advisers will always want his future business. Moreover, McLemore and his family likely will want and need their corresponding services. And again, that's completely fine. It's not immoral for either party to sign a contract, talk business, recruit each other, seek to obtain financial gain and benefit. Remember the part about this being America? The NCAA pretending otherwise in order not to pay worker's compensation claims doesn't make it any less so. Similarly, a 400-plus page rulebook largely devoted to amateurism enforcement doesn't replace the laws of supply and demand; it simply drives the college sports economy underground, generating value for otherwise unnecessary intermediaries like Boyd, Blackstock and Cobb.
Consider the following from Eric Prisbell's story in USA TODAY Sports:
Cobb says he is telling his story because he wants to help educate basketball families such as the McLemores and expose individuals who pursue college athletes and their families while the players still have amateur eligibility.
"I don't want to hurt the family, I want to protect the family," Cobb says. "If there had to be a bad guy, if there had to be a fall guy, let it be me, as opposed to ruining a great kid who has busted his butt to get where he is. Let me be the crooked AAU coach. I was willing to take the brunt of it for the sake of this kid. I wanted to keep him pure."
How magnanimous. Noble, even. I wanted to keep him pure! If this whole talent broker racket doesn't work out, Cobb has a bright future with the NCAA. That said, forget good and bad. Never mind crooked and -- no giggles, please -- pure. Instead, ask yourself this: Why was Ben McLemore's high school summer ball coach taking Beverly Hills meetings in the first place? Was he optioning a script? And why was Blackstock -- essentially some random dude from Greensboro -- plying him with cash in order to meet McLemore's mom, the better to possibly introduce her son to some agents and financial planners?
Isn't that at least two go-betweens too many?
If McLemore was a talented young musician, he would have been taking meetings himself. Listening to pitches. Weighing his options. Enjoying a few days of the Southern California good life. Kicking back at a Clippers game. Returning to Kansas with some cash in his pocket. In a sane system, he would have had his mom and a reputable lawyer by his side. But no. The NCAA doesn't allow that, and rightfully so, because
it would prevent him from studying hard and excelling on the floor as a student-athlete, which is kind of the whole loudly-proclaimed point of college sports the rules say otherwise. Or something. Truth is, amateurism didn't protect McLemore from Cobb and Blackstock. It made them necessary. It hurt McLemore and his family, too. And not in some theoretical, value-denying Econ 101 sort of way.
As Prisbell reports, McLemore grew up impoverished. He lived in a 600 square-foot house that had a single bed, with as many as 10 relatives sleeping there on any given night. His family couldn't always afford to have hot water; sometimes, he would heat up bowls of water in the microwave, then run them to the bathtub to create a lukewarm bath. He worked odd jobs around his neighborhood with his younger brother Kevin, cutting grass, moving trash, fixing bikes, anything to earn a few dollars. He still went hungry, sometimes going two days without something to eat.
"You get those hunger pains," McLemore told USA TODAY Sports. "I am so hungry. We don't have any food. What are we going to eat? Your stomach hurts. Then you get so upset and mad, like, no food. You start having tantrums and don't want to do anything. You get mad at everybody because you don't have any food. That's what happens when you don't eat. You are so sluggish. It's just bad, man."
The good news? As a Kansas basketball player, McLemore didn't have to worry about where his next meal was coming from. The bad news? He told Prisbell in late February that his mother was still unemployed, living in the same small house, and that his family was struggling financially -- a struggle exacerbated by amateurism. Think that $10,000 allegedly pocketed by Cobb might have helped pay for hot water? For another bed? For a few full stomachs back home? According to Cobb, Blackstock paid $500 for a February bowling party celebrating McLemore's birthday, complete with a custom cake.
Bowling and cake. Do those sound like accessories to a crime?
When McLemore entered Kansas, he was a partial academic qualifier -- likely because he grew up inside a Missouri school district that was dissolved by the state because of poor academic performance. He had to sit out his freshman season. Prisbell tells the story from there:
… [Kansas coach] Bill Self said McLemore sat in his office a little over a year ago and told the coach that he was starting to really enjoy school and develop a confidence in learning. Self said the school's academic support staff almost has to run McLemore out of tutoring. He'll stay three hours and, when told to go home, will respond, "No, I've have not got this yet."
As [former Kansas basketball coach Larry] Brown says, "If you ask Ben if he wants to stay at KU for four years, I bet he would want it in a minute. But he can't."
In other words: If not for amateurism preventing him from capitalizing on at least some of his economic value, McLemore would have been more likely to stay in school, supposedly the whole point of the NCAA's student-athlete exercise. Only that's not the point. Not really. Not when the current college sports system acts as the ultimate self-perpetuating middleman.
Shoe companies want athletes like McLemore to sport their latest wares. Thanks to amateurism, coaches keep the cash for themselves. Boosters, alumni and television networks pour money into athletic departments and the NCAA. Thanks to amateurism, administrators decide what to do with it. Results are predictable. According to Drexel University sports management professor Ellen Staurowsky, the average big-time Division I athletic scholarship falls short of the full cost of attending school by an average of $3,285, leaving the vast majority of players living below the federal poverty line; meanwhile, Steve Berkowitz of USA TODAY Sports reports that athletic directors at those same schools are paid an average of $515,000 annually.
In February, McLemore told Prisbell that he had a simple goal: I just want to keep working hard so one day I can help my family. I am going to get a big house one day and we all can stay in it and eat. Also that month, Emmert boasted about "holding people accountable for their behavior" when an investigation into amateurism violations at Miami imploded in embarrassing, emperor-has-no-clothes fashion. He still has a job. Still earns a reported $1.6 million a year. Remains a glorified go-between. Athletes over here. Money over there. Bureaucrats with Gingrich-ian coifs in the middle, skimming the cream and the milk, too. Nothing much has changed. Presumably, the NCAA will look into the McLemore report; depending on what it uncovers, it then will look for someone to punish. Rules are rules. Seeking commercial gain is verboten. Accountability and such. Only Cobb and Blackstock aren't criminals. They're copycats. And amateurish ones at that.