Nobody — and I mean nobody — loves college basketball more than Dick Vitale.
That’s why his heart is breaking today.
“I don’t like what’s out there,” Vitale said. “I don’t like the sleaziness, the corruption. I don’t like the fraud that college basketball has become.”
Most days the ESPN analyst, who is in his 39th year of calling games, goes to breakfast near his home in Lakewood Ranch in Florida.
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“It used to be that fans would come up and say, ‘Dickie V, who’s going to make the Final Four? Who’s going to win it all?’” Vitale said. “Now? They come up and say, ‘Hey, Dickie V, what’s wrong with your sport? Everybody’s cheating.’
“Bottom line: college basketball is broken.”
Scandal is running a fast break through the sport. The FBI is investigating what appears to be widespread corruption that has named some of the most notable programs in the country.
In September, four assistant coaches were arrested when the FBI said they paid tens of thousands of dollars to steer NBA-bound players to sports agents and apparel companies. Louisville was stripped of its 2013 national championship. Sean Miller, the coach of national power Arizona, was allegedly caught on a wiretap making sure a recruit was paid $100,000 to attend Arizona.
On and on it goes, and where are we now?
“A very bad place,” Vitale said.
This is the time to have this conversation. For one, it’s long overdue. For another, if we wait until later this month, we’ll all get swept up in the romance of March Madness and all its underdogs, buzzer-beaters and more than one shining moment.
“The current system doesn’t work,” Vitale said. “It needs to be fixed.”
How? There are two quick fixes.
First, let’s scrap this one-and-done rule.
“It’s a joke,” Vitale said.
That’s the rule that says a player must be out of high school at least one year before he can enter the NBA Draft. This rule was supposedly put in place to protect the kids. Baloney. That rule was put in place to try and save college basketball by forcing the best players in the country to spend at least one season in college.
But if a player is good enough to skip straight to the pros, let him. This isn’t medical school, where someone needs the proper training and testing to become a doctor. This is basketball. If a kid is good enough, he’s good enough. Let him play.
“Student-athletes? Come on, you know and I know many of those kids don’t want to be there, they don’t have any desire to be in college,” Vitale said. “They’re there because the rule says they have to be there. … If the kid’s desire is to be a professional athlete, he should have that right to do it.”
The other big change that needs to happen? It’s time: Pay the players.
For starters, they deserve a piece of the pie, and that piece goes well beyond getting a free education, room and board. College sports makes billions of dollars, coaches makes millions of dollars, and it’s shameful that the athletes who are doing most of the work aren’t allowed their fair share. As 76ers star Ben Simmons, a former one-and-done college player at LSU, said, “Everybody’s making money except the players.”
“We all make money; I make money!” Vitale said. “The only ones who don’t are the ones we need to the most for this sport. The players are really the only vital ones in this whole thing.”
Other than maybe sweatshops, name any other walk of life where workers receive such little payment for their production.
It’s a full-time job to be a college athlete and part of their job, when you think about it, is giving the school invaluable advertising. And schools absolutely capitalize on the popularity of their athletes through merchandise such as jerseys and video games.
And don’t tell me paying college athletes would somehow corrupt the sport. The sport is already beyond corrupt.
How would athletes be paid? I’m sure NCAA president Mark Emmert, who makes around $2 million a year, is paid well enough to put together a panel of smart people to figure it out.
Would it completely eliminate cheating in college? No. But it’s a start.
Vitale has this idea: If an agent thinks a player is a can’t-miss pro prospect, allow that agent to advance money to the player.
“So be it,” Vitale said. “Let him do it. You now eliminate the runner (who directs players to certain schools), the sleazy agents, all that. Let the kid get it on the table instead of under the table.”
Every year, Vitale looks forward to the Final Four. This year, not so much. The 78-year-old Hall of Fame broadcaster already wonders what will happen if schools under scrutiny, such as Arizona and Auburn, make it.
“It’s going to be press conference after press conference of questions about this stuff,” Vitale said. “Heartbreaking, man. That’s the only way to put it. Heartbreaking.”