IN 1988 the clubhouse of the Boston Red Sox was roiled up because a woman named Margo Adams had filed a $6 million palimony suit against star third baseman Wade Boggs, with whom she'd been keeping company on road trips. Ms. Adams was not shy about describing what she'd seen and experienced as a travelling baseball courtesan. The entire Red Sox franchise was shaken. Then there was this curious item in one of the newspaper accounts; it seems that as a favor to Red Sox management, some local FBI agents had invited Ms. Adams for what was described as an "informal" chat.
Here is one thing I have learned in my years on this planet: There is no such thing as an informal chat with the FBI. What would that entail, anyway? Dusting the hot dogs for fingerprints? If you are a powerful person, you call your friends at the Bureau for one reason: to scare the living wits out of somebody out of whom you need to scare the living wits. Using the Feebs for your private business requires the juice possessed only by very large and powerful organizations. That the private use of the FBI also is a terrible waste of taxpayer dollars is beyond question.
I've been thinking of Ms. Margo as things have come to a head in what appears to be a thoroughgoing investigation by the FBI into how college basketball has filled its rosters since the dawn of time. Back in September, when the news broke, I was marginally intrigued. This wasn't my first rodeo here and, as Clemenza tells Michael Corleone, "These things gotta happen every five years or so.... Helps to get rid of the bad blood." I thought—and still do think—that the FBI had better things to do than to muck around in who bought whom a meal, since little of what was being alleged seemed to be an actual crime. But then the leaks started, and I saw this whole business take a dark and wasteful turn. A Feb. 23 story at Yahoo! Sports reported that "documents show an underground recruiting operation that could create NCAA rules issues—both current and retroactive—for at least 20 Division I basketball programs and more than 25 players." The potential NCAA violations involved players at the country's biggest programs, including Duke, North Carolina and Michigan State.
Conflating NCAA violations with the kind of crimes the FBI is supposed to pursue is a mug's game of the first order. It's the kind of maneuver common to floundering prosecutors who want to scare potential witnesses into believing the state's case is stronger than it actually is.
Now, there may be some sort of half-arsed tax case, or some petty wire fraud or mail fraud raps, that can be hung on the ASM Sports Agency, the talent-mongers at the heart of this extravaganza, or on the people who already have been arrested and charged. But this was a two-year investigation—to investigate what, precisely? Fraud? Who, precisely, is being defrauded? And what is the nature of the fraud? This isn't public corruption. This is a well-functioning underground economy that exists only because a regular economy is against the rules. The FBI is operating as the enforcement arm of the NCAA, and that's just crazy.
Two years ago, when the FBI started sniffing around, the NCAA was on the ropes. It was dawning generally that the organization existed to make some people rich on the unpaid labor of other people and that the money had grown so large that the relationship had become grotesque. The NCAA was losing control of the help, both in the courthouse and in the public mind. What was a profitable, if grossly exploitative, organization to do?
Along comes the FBI and NCAA president Mark Emmert (previous page), who makes about $2 million a year but wouldn't make a dime without the work put in by teenagers who have to fight to profit even from the use of their images. "These allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America," a statement from Emmert read. "Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports."
For the love of heaven, please shut up. There is some talk that the findings of this investigation will lay amateurism to rest once and for all. But Emmert clearly sees this as an opportunity to position the NCAA again as the guardians of academic and athletic purity, as a way to regain control over the help. Consider that the FBI already has said that the universities involved are not objects of the investigation. So, players get named. Coaches get fired. Agents go broke on legal fees. But Boards of Regents carry on, waving their foam fingers in the air and grazing buffet tables and groaning boards paid for by their "corporate partners."
But the real clincher was discovered by Shaun King of The Intercept in the filings of a class-action suit brought against the NCAA by one Lawrence (Poppy) Livers, a former college athlete. In response to the suit, the NCAA argued that the status quo is justified by a 1992 decision from the Seventh Circuit court of appeals, Vanskike v. Peters. Vanskike, who was an inmate in an Illinois prison, argued that he should be paid the federal minimum wage for work he did while inside. The court ruled against him and based its decision on the fact that the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, also has in it a provision allowing involuntary servitude, "as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." This is a reason we have cheap prison labor today. It's also the argument posed in at least three cases now, according to King's reporting, by the NCAA as a justification for not paying the athletes that keep it in business.
That's just breathtaking. Emmert gets to puff himself up about "those who play by the rules" while his lawyers equate the athletes who pay his salary with convicts working in prison sweatshops. From all this I conclude that this FBI investigation, while a colossal waste of time and money, is one of the best things that ever happened to the NCAA.
"EMMERT GETS TO PUFF HIMSELF UP ABOUT 'THOSE WHO PLAY BY THE RULES' WHILE HIS LAWYERS EQUATE THE ATHLETES WHO PAY HIS SALARY WITH CONVICTS."
A LIFE REMEMBERED
EDGE: JESSIE DIGGINS
THEY SAID IT
"I DIDN'T WRITE IT.... I CAN BARELY READ, MATE."
THUNDER CENTER STEVEN ADAMS, on his forthcoming autobiography, which is being ghostwritten by Madeleine Chapman.
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
THE NFL NETWORK COVERED LIVE THE COIN FLIP—WITH A CUSTOM-MADE COIN—TO DETERMINE WHETHER THE 49ERS OR THE RAIDERS GOT THE NINTH PICK IN THE DRAFT.