It was not the action that buried the crazed college coach, odd as that is, given that the action included homophobic slurs and basketballs hurled at heads when the secret-tyrant wasn’t shoving or kicking the kids. No, it was the reaction that made the “Fire-them!” flames climb to the highest levels of Rutgers last week, engulfing those visionless leaders paid for vision and leadership.
This was at once crazy and not surprising at all that the public and media would care more about the treatment of the free labor than the authorities profiting off and entrusted with the precious care of that free labor. But amateurism’s entire construct collapses with compromised convictions like this whenever what must be protected first is the money, and men are doing their climbing upon the backs of boys.
The NCAA’s weakened and antiquated empire fell to a knee with a groan last week, besieged from all angles by righteous rage at the perfect time for the University of Miami, and every scandal sprang from the same poisoned seed.
How could a Rutgers basketball coach and his assistant feel free to bully and abuse helpless kids they never would have engaged physically under any other circumstances outside that gym?
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Those coaches had too much power.
How could the Pac-12 Conference’s disgraced head of officiating — in charge of integrity, mind you — offer $5,000 to the ref who ejected or gave a technical foul to Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller — and then watch Miller get his first technical foul of the year late in the close game that ended Arizona’s season?
He had too much power.
How could grades reportedly be changed at an institution of higher learning — or Auburn, anyway — to keep important players eligible during a championship run?
Football had too much power.
And how could UM, after whipping itself for years with self-imposed penalties, still somehow be fighting an interminable and immoral NCAA investigation less interested in fairness than in justifying the NCAA’s existence?
The NCAA has too much power.
The kids? Totally powerless, of course.
That sports snuff film Rutgers belched out last week was shocking when out in the light, but it works as a symbol for this entire rigged system — the rich and powerful abusing the poor and helpless.
Becoming the norm
There was something about the culture in that Rutgers gym that made the coaches feel morally OK about disrespecting and abusing those kids, and something about the culture in that gym that made those beaten kids symbolically accept that disrespect and abuse as a normal part of the college-sports transaction.
Out in the real word, this kind of dysfunction in a relationship requires therapy or jail.
The kids don’t have any choice but to eat it, though. Quit, you soft quitter, and you have to sit out a year. Complain, you whining snitch, and you risk losing your playing time, your scholarship, your good name, your future. And God help the poor Rutgers kid who stood up for himself by punching an abusive coach in the face. He would have become a national pariah before the blood on the authority figure’s face had dried.
If we don’t see the video we saw last week — and we never see that video, which is part of why it was so shocking — no explanation would have sufficed for the kid who stood up and retaliated. His basketball future and education would have been swallowed on the spot, and he would have become coach-choking Latrell Sprewell, and that would have been his only reward for respecting himself enough to fight back. Don’t ever get shoved around, kid, unless it is your abusive coach and your abusive system doing the shoving. That’s a lot of adults/authority figures — the system, the rules, the coach, the media, the public perception, the entire rigged game — conspiring to bully the powerless kid into submission.
Even with the clarity of retrospect, it seems impossible to understand how Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti could not fire coach Mike Rice the moment he saw that videotape. Horrific judgment? No. Here’s how this happens, and it speaks to how backward and broken this entire enterprise is:
The athletic director is supposed to be checks-and-balances for the coach, but he can’t be when the athletic director’s success and career are tied to the coach’s. What should be boss-employee becomes muddled when the coach is more famous and makes more money and holds the boss’ job in his hands just as much as the reverse is true. The coach makes the guy who hired him look good or bad, and brings in that money from boosters, and nobody can really be the boss in cases of morality when the boss governing all from above is the dollar. That’s how this happens, and that’s how Penn State happened, the only real difference being the way the kids were abused in the name of program protection.
But Rutgers is just a tiny side effect of the real disease, the nosebleed that finally reveals the cancer. The authorities have too much of the power, and the free labor has none, so you essentially have two multibillion-dollar cartels (the NFL and NBA) getting free minor-league systems while conspiring with another cartel (the NCAA) to mine the inner cities for product. Amateur sports are just pro sports in disguise, all the injustices rationalized away in the name of “teaching” and “education,” but all we really learned last week (with Rutgers, with the Pac-12, with Auburn, with UM and the NCAA) is that power is one hell of a drug, and it is easy for the authority figures governing the injustices to overdose on it.
It was a truly awful week for the rotting empire and its principles, but the most symbolic snapshot from it wasn’t even any of those incidents, believe it or not. You could find that elsewhere, on the road to the Final Four, the loudest annual celebration of amateurism.
The filthy four
It is in Atlanta this year, bringing an estimated $70 million of economic impact to the city, and it features Louisville coach Rick Pitino. He would get $425,000 for winning the thing — almost as much as his school president’s $600,000 annual salary. That’s just Pitino’s bonus on top of the $5 million he will make annually through 2022 — a salary made possible at least in part because CBS and Turner paid $10.8 billion for the rights to these basketball Marches. That’s billion, not million.
Left behind on that gold-paved road to the Final Four, screaming and writhing on the ground, trampled in as gruesome a fashion as we’ve ever seen in sports, was one of Pitino’s players, Kevin Ware, literally broken as this corrupt party churned unimpeded toward all that money to be made.