You know college sports fans have become inured to scandal when a celebrity attorney and accused extortionist can dump a cache of incriminating documents on the Saturday of the Final Four, and the collective reaction is little more than a yawn.
As part of his ongoing crusade against Nike, Michael Avenatti released 41 pages of correspondence and bank records backing up his claim that the company was making under-the-table payments to the families of top basketball recruits, including Oregon’s Bol Bol.
Avenatti, of course, is best known for representing adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who at least was paid for her work. Now he’s taking aim at amateur athletics. If he expected fans to be scandalized by these allegations, it appears he miscalculated.
It’s widely understood that shoe companies use grassroots basketball as a way to influence top recruits. This knowledge has brought no significant harm to the colleges or the shoe companies, aside from those unlucky Adidas employees who ended up in jail.
According to federal prosecutors, Avenatti was betting that Nike would be willing to pay millions in blackmail money to keep these records secret. Instead the company took his scheme to the authorities. Now facing prison time on extortion charges, Avenatti seems intent on taking Nike down with him.
Avenatti provided dummy invoices that he says were used to funnel money to handlers representing blue-chip recruits. The alleged recipients include Melvin McDonald, a youth basketball coach described as Bol’s handler.
Unless more evidence emerges, I don’t see much reason for Oregon to be concerned. Bol played nine games for the Ducks before breaking his foot, so what’s the worst-case scenario? Vacating that loss to Texas Southern?
Anyone using the term “bombshell” to describe these allegations is being willfully ignorant. The real bombshell would be if some one-and-done player made it to the NBA without a shoe company shoving money in someone’s pocket.
That’s not to say the mechanics of these transactions aren’t noteworthy, or that lawbreakers shouldn’t be punished. By all means, let’s crack down on the shady characters who are enriching themselves off the labor of unpaid athletes.
Starting with the NCAA.
If you want to know why fans have trouble mustering outrage about these allegations, start with the NCAA rules that exist to make sure athletes remain broke while coaches and administrators rake in the profits. Why should Nike or anyone else play along with the NCAA’s outdated ideas about amateurism?
So a company founded on the spirit of Steve Prefontaine has little regard for arcane, bureaucratic rules. Hmm. Go figure.
That’s not to defend Nike, but to defend the fan’s right not to care. Once you accept that most elite basketball prospects are professionals in some capacity, you can go back to watching the games with no moral conflict.
That doesn’t mean fans are numb to corruption, necessarily. What might be described as scandal fatigue is actually, I think, a fairly nuanced perception of what happens behind the scenes of college basketball.
It’s one thing if a coach is paying players to attend his school, as LSU coach Will Wade has been accused of doing. It’s another thing for a shoe company to steer a player away from a rival, as appears to be the case in Avenatti’s allegations.
If someone can produce evidence that Oregon’s coaches were involved in a pay-for-play scheme, that would be news. What we have right now are allegations that Nike used an AAU coach to steer a top recruit to a Nike school, which we all assumed has been happening for years.
At this point, Avenatti probably figured he would be sitting on a stack of Nike’s money. Instead he got arrested, Nike got its reputation sullied a bit, and the rest of us went on watching college basketball as if none of this happened.
Seems like everyone got what they deserved.