Last week, for some fun, waggy Internet chatter, I ranked the top 25 most desirable coaching jobs in college basketball. (I did the same for college football.) There were a few things wrong with the piece -- Villanova should be above Temple, Georgetown's probably too high -- but on the whole, it turned out well. It is also telling that Kentucky fans are so intense that the fact that I ranked them No. 1 was far outweighed by their belief that I ranked Louisville too high. Kentucky fans are the best.
Outside of the Villanova mistake and lunatic Kentucky fans, the most common comment I received concerned my ranking of Illinois at No. 17. Most agreed that I had my alma mater in around the right spot. Illinois basketball has a massive, devoted fan base -- Illinois has played four away games this year; at three they've had nearly as many fans as the home team -- improving facilities and a natural recruiting base with Chicago. (Along with St. Louis and Peoria.) But there was an undeniable sense Illinois was a disappointment nonetheless; they are rarely ranked No. 17 in the top 25, that's to say, and their best coaches (Bill Self, Lon Kruger) tend to leave for better jobs. Illinois hasn't won the Big Ten since that Dee Brown/Deron Williams/Luther Head team. They've missed the NCAA tournament every other year since 2007. Why doesn't the greatness of the Illinois job translate into sustained success?
Several people who cover recruiting -- professionally, as a hobby, as a side project -- had a very clear, plain and obvious answer for me when I asked them this question: It's because Illinois doesn't cheat.
Now, the word "cheat" is a vague one here. It can mean that they don't pay their players. It can mean alumni donors don't slip them money under the table. It can mean that the University doesn't let them slide academically, either upon admission or once they're enrolled. It can mean some of those things, or all of them, or none of them. But every person I talked who covered recruiting -- and it's really sort of amazing how many of them there are -- said Illinois doesn't get top recruits and doesn't have sustained success because they don't cheat, or at least don't cheat as blatantly or effectively as other schools.
I found this curious. Not that Illinois is somehow more moral or ethical or whatever than other schools -- I suspect this isn't true -- but that this is accepted as a self-evident truth, the natural state of matters, in an open, duh way. Everybody cheats, people kept telling me. Obviously, you dope. This can be instructive, I think, maybe even helpful.
Here is my stance on "cheating" in college athletics, however you want to define that: It is ridiculous a multi-billion dollar industry like college sports gets away with not paying its labor force, those putting their minds and bodies on the line every week for our personal amusement. (Read Taylor Branch and our own Patrick Hruby, or just watch South Park for smarter takes on this than I can give you.) Anything that gives benefits, in whatever form, to the athletes who take on all the risk is inherently less corrupt than the system that currently exists. This was the great irony of Sports Illustrated's big flop of an Oklahoma State "corruption" story this fall; they didn't seem to realize that what they were "uncovering" was far less sinister than the way college sports actually exists in its current form. (Or as Deadspin meanly, but accurately put it, calling Yahoo's excellent but outdated college enterprise reporter Charles Robinson "a mall cop coming to terms with the fact that no one goes to that mall anymore.")
So that's to say: Like most college sports fans, my outrage about "cheating" extends about as far as my own alma mater. If Ohio State "cheats," I want them punished, because they're in my conference and I want my team to beat them. If Illinois "cheats," I want them not to get caught, and, just as important, I don't want to know about it. And the "cheating" better work: It doesn't do any good to "cheat" and still not win the Big Ten. If this sounds morally questionable to you, it's a lot less morally questionable than college sports itself. In lieu of overthrowing the whole sport -- something I, along with most fans, am too weak-willed to do (I enjoy watching the games too much) -- it is at least honest.
But what I was so taken aback by from so many of the recruiting experts is not that Illinois isn't "cheating," but that it's just universally understood that cheating is required to succeed. Illinois wasn't receiving credit in their eyes for doing it The Right Way, whatever that means. It was the opposite, a wary shake of the head, almost a scolding; they must just not want to win too badly down there. Get with the program, guys. The people who know this better than anyone understand that whatever rules the NCAA might impose, almost everyone is breaking them, just to survive.
Again, I don't know how you'll feel about this, but: I think this is great. The NCAA rules on this stuff are ridiculous; it is reassuring, in a way, that the people who know a lot more about this than me think the same way. That skirting those rules, in whatever way, has become the norm rather than the exception; in fact, the exception is frowned upon, almost pitied. (Again: Assuming these schools, Illinois or others, are in fact exceptions.) IF everyone is flouting the rules -- mocking them -- maybe it's time to change them? Clearly, the notion of "fairness" that the NCAA is (presumably, and I admit I'm being charitable) trying to protect isn't being upheld at all; that's precisely what's not happening. If the very people who follow this most closely openly talk about everyone "cheating" -- if they don't even acknowledge the NCAA rules that pearl-clutchers grasping onto the old idea of "amateurism" are even noticed, let alone adhered to -- then why are we keeping them around?
I don't know what's going to happen to the future of college athletics. Universities themselves are widely considered to be toward the end of speculative bubble; the whole structure of higher education could be in danger over the next couple of decades. That's not to mention the cable bubble that all sports, including college sports, are living through and benefitting from as well. Eventually, this is all going to have to change. When it does, we'll be a lot better off if we were a lot honest about where all this stands. Because right now, everyone's pretending that there are rules in place that everyone is following. Those on the ground, closest to what's actually happening, know better than that. Perhaps it's time for the rest of us to catch up with them.