NEW YORK -- College basketball's elders rolled out four heavyweights for a kickoff Madison Square Garden doubleheader and hoped everyone would quit talking about players getting paid. Zion Williamson's presence would have made the sell a bit easier. Given the transient nature of the college game, your average New Yorker would have had a hard time naming four or five kids who dressed for Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State.
Not that star power was in short supply Tuesday night. You just had to know where to look to find it -- on the sideline. Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self, John Calipari and Tom Izzo walked into the Garden as Hall of Fame coaches with a combined 3,168 victories, 27 Final Four appearances (not counting the two Calipari lost at Memphis and UMass over NCAA violations), and eight national titles (five from Coach K) over a combined 121 Division I seasons. They are the faces of their universities, not just their teams, for a reason.
If the NBA belongs to the players, and all the franchise-making and breaking they do in free agency, college basketball belongs to the coaches. They are the constants, the only stars who never graduate or turn pro. They have the money and the power. They control the distribution of scholarships, minutes, and just about everything else in their programs. That isn't going to change.
But something fundamental does need to change about college basketball fame and fortune, and much sooner than later. Coaches can keep all of their fame; it's the fortune part they have to start sharing with the athletes who sent them to the Hall of Fame in the first place.
As for the opening-night action on the floor, Duke beat Kansas 68-66 before No. 2 Kentucky defeated No. 1 Michigan State by seven in the State Farm Champions Classic. Frankly, having the nation's four top teams under one roof reminded everyone of how this sport can stand among the best of the best. Over more than three decades of covering the pros in New York, of covering championship Yankees and Giants teams and contending Knicks teams (yes, they did at one time exist), I thought nothing was more alive in the big city than the old-school Big East tournament, or a big Garden doubleheader around holiday time.
"I'm not going to shortchange our place, Cameron," Krzyzewski said after winning his first post-Zion game, career victory No. 1,133, "but this is the one I love to play in after Cameron. The balls bounce differently, the noise -- there's just something about this place. ... Eventually when I stop coaching I'll look back on the times here as very special times in New York."
At 72, savoring the start of his 40th Duke season -- not to mention Tre Jones' poise in a tense victory with a March feel to it -- Coach K didn't sound like a man who would stop coaching anytime soon.
"What a way to start the season," he said. "College basketball certainly did it right. ...To bring four of the storied programs in our country together in this venue, you've got to be kidding me. And the game certainly lived up to it. That was a big-time game. A big-time game."
Yes, given the recent turmoil that has swallowed college basketball whole, the game needed the games to begin. Turns out the Kansas Jayhawks needed the ball in the air more than anyone.
Forced into action by the FBI corruption probe and the trial that played out in a federal courthouse 3½ miles from the Garden, the NCAA has hit Kansas with serious allegations of wrongdoing. Self and assistant Kurtis Townsend were accused of having "blatantly disregarded the NCAA constitution and bylaws," after a former Adidas grassroots consultant, T.J. Gassnola, testified in federal court that he paid $90,000 to the mother of former Kansas recruit Billy Preston and agreed to pay $20,000 (on top of an earlier $2,500 payment) to the guardian of current Kansas player Silvio De Sousa.
The NCAA reviewed texts between Gassnola and the Kansas coaches and believes that the coaches knew of improper recruiting contacts made by reps of Adidas, which would complete a $191 million sponsorship deal with the school, and that Self failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance "based on personal involvement in violations." Self strongly denied the charges, and he promised to fight the NCAA with everything he has.
But the bigger-picture fight here isn't about Adidas and Kansas or how Nike does business with Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke, which said it found no evidence of wrongdoing after celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti -- facing federal charges for allegedly attempting to extort Nike -- claimed the shoe giant had made payments to Zion Williamson's mother. That bigger-picture fight is over an entire system in desperate need of a reboot.
Nobody familiar with the game's underbelly needed the FBI investigation into black-ops bribery and fraud and subsequent convictions of relative small-timers to know that college basketball, or the ideal of college basketball, has long been as much of a sham as the idea that the bad guys here defrauded the benefiting schools. One person with extensive knowledge of the federal probe was asked recently how many top 40 prospects he believes arrive on campus without a handler, a family member, a summer coach, or the player himself having already accepted money from an unauthorized source.
"None of them," the person said. "You have to talk to five to seven people to recruit a kid, and that's the problem and the NCAA doesn't get it. ... By the time they get to college, these kids are not amateurs in any way."
They are only deemed amateurs by the adult professionals who lord over a morally bankrupt industry that won't be fixed by California's signed Fair Pay to Play Act, or by the NCAA's grudging willingness -- in response to other proposed state and federal legislation -- to finally entertain name, image, and likeness compensation in the near future (how noble!).
Never mind a future of legal third-party paychecks from the local car dealer, or of sanctioned cash made at autograph sessions in the mall. The NCAA banks $1 billion a year in broadcast fees for its March Madness tournament alone. Why can't the players who make the tournament special receive their fair share of that payout?
The big shoe companies throw Monopoly money at schools and coaches. Why can't the players who actually wear the shoes and serve as high-flying billboards get an ample piece of that pie?
In 2017, The Courier-Journal of Louisville reported that the Cardinals' then-suspended-and-since-fired basketball coach, Rick Pitino, collected 98 percent of the school's expiring Adidas deal, which amounted to millions for Pitino and nickels for everyone else. In his report titled "Madness, Inc.: How Everyone is Getting Rich off College Sports -- Except the Players," Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn., detailed how 4,400 Power Five coaches were paid more in salary ($1.2 billion) than 45,000 Power 5 athletes received in student aid ($936 million).
"College athletes are being used as commodities to make money for the NCAA, college and corporations, while not being compensated or rewarded for the work they do," Murphy said in a Tuesday night statement to ESPN.com. "The whole system is designed to make gobs of money for mostly white adults off the virtually free labor of mostly African-American kids. Allowing college athletes to profit off their labor is both a civil rights and a free-market issue, which is why we're beginning to see bipartisan support for fixing this broken system."
"Allowing college athletes to profit off their labor is both a civil rights and a free-market issue, which is why we're beginning to see bipartisan support for fixing this broken system." Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn
If athletes were allowed access to primary revenue streams, said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sport management at Drexel's LeBow College of Business, "What we might see is a redistribution of wealth in athletic departments. We might see coaches may not be as wealthy as they are now, athletic directors may not be as wealthy as they are now, and bowl directors may not be as wealthy as they are right now. We would see a redistribution in terms of the quote-unquote recruiting inducements, meaning the building of facilities, elaborate locker rooms, athlete villages. We would see that money flowing directly to athletes rather than into these facilities."
And what, exactly, would be so terrible about that?
Staurowsky worked with National College Players Association president Ramogi Huma on a study titled, "The $6 Billion Heist: Robbing College Athletes Under the Guise of Amateurism," which found that NCAA rules cost FBS football players and men's basketball players $6 billion of their true market value from 2011 to '15, and cost the average men's basketball player from a power conference an estimated $1.5 million in that same period. Staurowsky is in the process of updating the study and the numbers, and surprise, surprise:
"It looks like the players are in a worse position now than then," she said, "meaning that the gap between what the revenue is versus what the players have access to continues to grow."
Mere weeks after NCAA president Mark Emmert claimed the push for name, image, and likeness pay could destroy college sports as we know them, the NCAA buckled under legislative and media pressure ... but only to a point. The organization's board of governors unanimously approved "the opportunity to benefit" from name, image, and likeness as long as it is "in a manner consistent with the collegiate model."
A model more outdated than a rotary phone.
Staurowsky took issue with the NCAA's claim that it is modernizing its law of the land.
"A 21st century model would be athletes having trade associations," she said, "appropriate representation, opportunities for group licensing, and having the recognition that financial support is always tied to educational success. This notion that somehow an athlete who would get a paycheck wouldn't graduate is just a blatant falsity."
So, too, is the notion that over-the-table payments to players while on campus will do nothing to temper their desire to take under-the-table payments before they get there. "We have this underground economy," Staurowsky said, "that is emblematic of what happens when you suppress player value. ...It isn't that people who take this money, in my view, are morally corrupt. They may in fact be acting in a very righteous way in dealing with a system that's repressive."
Many athletes who have taken illicit payments have simply measured the absurdity of Emmert's collegiate model and concluded, as the iconic former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. once said, "that just because something is against NCAA rules doesn't mean it's wrong."
In the end, Krzyzewski and many other significant coaching voices have publicly supported the players' right to compensation above and beyond their scholarships and cost-of-attendance stipends. And truth is, given what he's meant to his university's visibility, prestige and $8.5 billion endowment over his 40 years in Durham, Krzyzewski himself is one of the precious few figures in college sports who is likely underpaid at $9 million a pop.
But by and large, coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioners have made far more than their fair share of seven-figure salaries, and the staggering inequities need to die a quick and painful death. Major college basketball is a professional enterprise that needs to start treating its players accordingly.