Players Getting Played: Why a Look at the NCAA’s Past Makes Me Weep for Its Future

A very common narrative, as we approach the men's NCAA basketball finals between Kentucky and Kansas, is that after this year’s round of March Madness, change will truly be on the march. The argument goes that scandal is so widespread, the NCAA will have to enact common sense reforms or risk collapsing under the weight of its own hypocrisy. As the great Charles Pierce wrote for Grantland, “The paradigm is shifting under their feet, and the people running the NCAA know it….It's taken longer than it did for golf and tennis, and even longer than it took for the Olympics, but the amateur burlesque in American college sports is on its way to crashing and the only remaining question is how hard it will fall. The farce is becoming unsupportable.”

As much as I’d like to believe that shame and scandal would cause the NCAA to change in a positive fashion, the past tells us a different story. It’s worth remembering the NCAA's post-war scandals and the change they wrought. This shows in stark terms that when it comes to the NCAA, change doesn’t always mean progress.

The post WW II terrain in college sports was a wild west of gambling, point shaving and pay for play scandals. The mass expansion of higher education and the growth of radio and television technology created new alliances, new audiences and new revenue streams in every corner of the country. Jeff Cravath, the football coach at USC said that the game, "Reduced players to perjurers, scalpers and football gigolos. The alumni demand winning football teams. To get winning teams, colleges must violate the rules they themselves have made." Jim Aiken, the head coach at the University of Oregon was more blunt: "If you have to choose between breaking the rules and losing games, wouldn't it be better to break the rules? If you lose your games you're certain to be fired. If you break the rules, you have to get caught to be fired."

No where was the corruption seen more visibly than at the City College of New York. City College was the preeminent basketball power in the country, having won both the NCAA and NIT championships in 1950. The following season, it all came tumbling down. In February 1951 three players were arrested on bribery charges, and that was just for openers. By the end of March, seventeen New York City college basketball players had been arrested. Eventually, District Attorney Frank Hogan arrested thirt-two players from seven colleges who fixed eighty-six games between 1947 and 1950.

As the great sports writer Maury Allen wrote, "That was the last time I really believed in pure idealism. For these guys to sell out their school and themselves and their careers for eight hundred dollars, for a thousand dollars, for fifteen hundred dollars was just such an emotional blow....You never really recover from something like that. It is a wound in your psyche that lasts all your life."

In Allen's words we see the dominant view of the scandal: the players were sellouts. They had sold out their school and their sport, and they were bought cheaply.

As Stanley Cohen wrote,

They were poor, most of them, they needed the money. But that is a reason, not an explanation. It explains only why they were willing to dump for relatively small sums. None of the players had about him the mood of a criminal. If they had not been college basketball players, it is not likely they would have ended up in the courts. They would not have stolen the money. They would not have robbed banks or knocked over gas stations or rolled drunks in Central Park. The likelihood is that most of them had committed the one crime for profit of which they were capable. They of course, functioned in an environment in which it might have been more difficult to play it straight than it was to accept a bribe. For point-shaving was as much a part of college basketball in the forties and fifties as the two-hand set shot.

Cohen was correct. This was a far more pervasive issue than just City College or New York City. Adolph Rupp, the Kentucky coach, blamed it on East Coast gamblers, saying, "They couldn't touch my boys with a 10-foot pole." He was wrong. Three players from the Wildcats' 1949 championship team were found to be involved and Kentucky had to suspend its basketball program for a year.

As for the City College team, most came from poor working class backgrounds and the NCAA made sure that all the weight of scandal was on their young shoulders.  The NCAA pointed at these 20-year-old bogeymen and promised change and a new system of accountability. And change they did. Power was consolidated in what former NCAA President Walter Byers described as a top down, authoritarian, "plantation system."  Now as a matter of course, when scandal struck players would always take the fall, coaches would be absolved just by going to another program, and the NCAA would have the power to spread the gospel of sham-amateurism from a throne of gold. Never would the NCAA look at the system with the critical eye expressed by Aiken and Cravath. Never would the NCAA taken a step back and acknowledge that the root of the problem might be that they were making billions off of unpaid labor. Their delusions that they are somehow moral agents of amateur sports has only actually strengthened with each scandal. Charles Pierce relayed that after the Final Four, the NCAA press officers repeatedly harangued reporters at the post-game press conference to not refer to the Kentucky and Kansas jocks as “players” but as “student athletes.” But they are players: players who are still getting played.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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