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NCAA basketball’s bribery scandal and its March Madness conspiracy theory, explained

Alleged payments to players uncovered by the FBI are overshadowing this year’s basketball tournament.

The Arizona Wildcats and USC Trojans play in the 2018 March Madness tournament. Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

A dark cloud is hanging over the NCAA college basketball tournament: an FBI investigation into alleged illegal payments made by coaches at top schools to student-athletes last year. This week, there are fresh conspiracies that the NCAA punished the implicated schools by keeping them out of March Madness.

Each March, college basketball temporarily takes over the sports universe with a 68-team tournament to crown its Division I champion. It is among the most watched and most gambled-on sporting events of the year. After individual conference tournaments, where the winner earns an automatic bid to the Big Dance, an NCAA selection committee chooses the rest of the field. They pick 36 of the 68 slots.

The NCAA bracket, with the committee’s selections, was released on Sunday night, and many sports fans couldn’t help but notice a trend. Several major teams that appeared to have a good shot at making the tournament were left out — and they had something in common: They had each been implicated in a recent FBI investigation that alleged illegal payments had been made to the school’s basketball players.

When the schools named in the FBI’s unprecedented indictment were left out of March Madness — particularly USC, which, SB Nation noted, prognosticators had universally expected to make the tournament — eyebrows went up. It seemed like the universities had been covertly punished for these alleged misdeeds.

That raises a bigger series of questions, which really go to the heart of the controversy: about the NCAA’s hegemonic power over collegiate sports and the debate over whether college athletes — some of whom reap hundreds of millions for their schools — deserve to be paid.

To the NCAA’s fiercest critics, the situation represents the worst of the organization’s impulses. The schools are stained by scandal for these roundabout payment schemes when really the players should be better compensated for the value they bring to their teams, and then the NCAA uses an opaque and secretive process to indirectly punish the schools and players.

The FBI investigation into NCAA basketball’s bribery schemes, explained

Last fall, the federal law enforcement agency handed down a stunning indictment of coaches at Oklahoma State University, the University of Arizona, the University of Southern California, and Auburn University. Federal prosecutors alleged that the coaches partook in systematic bribery schemes that steered players to certain schools and funneled money to players from sportswear companies and professional agents when they are supposed to be amateur players.

Under one scheme, assistant coaches at the four schools mentioned above allegedly accepted cash payments from sports agents and financial advisers in exchange for encouraging incoming high school players to commit to certain universities. As SB Nation outlined, one coach collected $13,000. Another brought in $22,000.

In a second related but distinct scheme, an unidentified sportswear company funneled six-figure payments to players, through the coaches, for players to commit to schools with which the clothing company already had a business partnership. The University of Louisville was eventually confirmed to be one of the schools involved.

The mechanics are byzantine, but these flow charts from the US district attorney prosecuting the cases should clear things up a bit.

The specific federal crimes were “bribery conspiracy, solicitation of bribes, honest services fraud conspiracy, honest service fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and Travel Act conspiracy,” according to ESPN. The schools immediately suspended coaches who were named in the indictment.

But on a more fundamental level, the charges violated the NCAA’s insistence that its athletes, even those at top-flight schools and playing marquee sports like basketball and football, are amateurs.

Here is how the NCAA describes the “bedrock principle” of amateurism:

Maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority. In the collegiate model of sports, the young men and women competing on the field or court are students first, athletes second.

The NCAA membership has adopted amateurism rules to ensure the students’ priority remains on obtaining a quality educational experience and that all of student-athletes are competing equitably.

Specifically, receiving benefits or payments from prospective agents or sponsors is considered a violation of the NCAA’s rules. So on their face, the charges made in the FBI’s indictment violated the very spirit of collegiate sports that the NCAA claims to uphold.

Some of March Madness’s biggest snubs had been named in the scandal

The NCAA’s announcement of its basketball tournament bracket brought all these controversies roaring back. Something smelled fishy to a lot of basketball-heads when teams like USC were excluded from the tournament entirely and Arizona received a lower seeding than its season seemed to warrant.

The selection committee, a group of 10 people tasked with deciding which 36 of Division I’s 300-odd basketball teams should receive at-large bids to the Big Dance, does not have any specific criteria by which it must evaluate teams. But the general rule is that they are selected based on record, strength of schedule, and quality wins.

Which is why USC’s snub, after a 23-11 season, was so confounding. Their record and the other statistical metrics used to evaluate their season looked solid. From SB Nation:

The Trojans were 34th nationally in RPI. The NCAA has used that stat, which stands for Rating Percentage Index, to help pick tournament teams since at least the 1980s. RPI is far from a perfect stat, but it’s a little weird that USC’s wasn’t good enough.

It was, in fact, a historic snub.

Louisville (20-13) and Oklahoma State University (19-14) were more on the proverbial bubble. They might have been left out simply because they weren’t good enough.

But then there is the case of Arizona. They went 27-7 during the season. They won the PAC-12 championship, prevailing in one of Division I’s top basketball conferences. They were ranked 12th by the Associated Press at the end of the season. Yet it seemed the committee dropped them as low as they justifiably could, to a No. 4 seed, instead of a No. 2 or No. 3. That means Arizona will have to play the best team in their region sooner, which increases the chances they will make an early exit from the single-elimination tournament.

It’s not as direct a snub as USC’s — which was impossible anyway, because Arizona was guaranteed its spot in the tournament — but some people who follow college basketball closely clearly thought something was amiss.

This is really about the NCAA’s power and the debate over paying players

In the end, the real controversy here isn’t about which teams got into March Madness or even the specifics of these elaborate schemes to funnel money from professional agents to college athletes. It’s about the long-simmering debate over whether it’s fair for top-shelf NCAA talent to play for free (or nearly free) and whether the NCAA has become reckless in its absolutist defense of that bedrock principle.

College sports, especially football and basketball, are a huge business: The Washington Post reported in 2015 that athletic programs for 48 of the biggest universities in the country were bringing in $4.5 billion in revenue every year. The bulk of that, you can be sure, comes from football and basketball.

Most schools don’t make money off their athletic programs and have to subsidize them with student fees and other revenue. But the major programs — your Ohio States, University of Texases, and LSUs — are cash machines, and that money is made because they have some of the best athletes in the country on their rosters. Athletes who are not paid their full market value.

You can’t say the athletes aren’t compensated at all. They receive scholarships that help them attend school, sometimes for free, and they can now receive stipends. But that has to be taken in context: The stipends that were permitted starting in 2015 were worth an estimated $100 million, far, far less than the players were helping to generate, according to CBS Sports. Furthermore, the demands on student-athletes’ time are often so high that the “education” they receive is not necessarily comparable to that of their non-athlete peers.

(Or look at it this way, as SB Nation helpfully illustrated: March Madness will yield an estimated $850 million for the NCAA, while the total value of the scholarships that players will receive is less than $50 million.)

More and more voices are calling for players to be fairly compensated, precisely because the logical outcome of the current system is these supposed scandals. (Public opinion has also started to turn in favor of paying players.)

This is how Joe Nocera, a Bloomberg columnist who wrote a book on the subject, put it last fall:

Athletes should be able to realize their fair market value while they’re in school, just like anyone else. With all the money pouring into college sports, the athletes know how valuable they are, and what a raw deal they’re getting. So long as the NCAA deprives them of the ability to make money on their labors, they will seek it somewhere else. That’s what happens when you try to suppress the market.

The status quo is increasingly untenable because everybody seems to realize the current system is unfair. The athletes have attempted to do something on their own: Football players at Northwestern University nearly succeeded a few years ago in establishing a labor union.

The NCAA’s intransigence is increasingly out of touch, and its perceived power moves, like snubbing USC and penalizing Arizona in this year’s bracket, will only make matters worse. In fact, the professional leagues for which college sports are a quasi-developmental program might step in and take the matter into their own hands.

The NBA’s LeBron James, the most famous athlete in America, said last month that the NCAA was “corrupt” and that his league should do something to provide an alternative route to pro basketball that skips college, as he did. (The NBA later instituted a rule that players must go to college or an overseas league for one year after high school before they could enter the league, the “one and done” rule.)

Just a few days later, ESPN reported that NBA commissioner Adam Silver was reevaluating the one-and-done rule.

March Madness is any college basketball fan’s favorite time of the year. But until the NCAA wakes up to reality, this kind of scandal — and the shadow it casts over the sport’s moment in the sun — will not go away.

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