More stunningly, in September, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York blindsided the NCAA with charges alleging corruption, bribery, and wire fraud. The ripple effect was vast: Assistants at Arizona, Oklahoma State, Auburn, and the University of Southern California were arrested, each accused of accepting money to either pay players or “exert influence.” The arrests also included an executive from Adidas. At the University of Louisville alone, the investigation led to the firing of the athletics director (Tom Jurich), head coach (Hall of Famer Rick Pitino), and two assistant coaches, as well as the permanent ineligibility of Brian Bowen, that school’s top recruit and a player whom the federal complaint (and later reports) said accepted $100,000.
As far as scandals go, Bowen’s case is rather pedestrian, but the allegations laid bare the sport’s underbelly, in which money, gift cards, and other enticements are de rigueur to establishing a winning program. “There are a lot of gray areas within college basketball that can change,” said Nebraska’s head coach, Tim Miles. “This is how recruiting has been done, and there is no question that this ‘scandal’ has gotten the attention of lots of people.” That, according to Miles, is how someone like Bilas can help the NCAA maneuver such waters. “Since Jay’s voice has been pretty steady on issues like this for the past few years,” Miles said, “he has to play a critical role in the advancement of college basketball, as we are in a transformational period.”
“Common sense reigns when you are on the outside,” said the Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin. “Jay points things out and makes people think. The NCAA is a large business making a lot of money and employing a lot of people, and Jay makes them very nervous.”
Asked about the federal corruption charges, Bilas demurred, arguing that the case is built on shaky ground. “I have been a trial lawyer for years, but I don’t see these as federal crimes,” he said. “No federal laws have been broken.”
But the investigation has exposed the fallibility of the NCAA’s core tenet—that “student-athletes” are equally defined by both sides of that term—and Bilas is willing to use his on-air platform (and nearly two million Twitter followers) to advocate for change. “I spend a lot of time thinking about the contradictions that exist within college sports,” Bilas said, “and my opinions seem especially germane now.”
He contends that there are common-sense solutions to the NCAA’s eligibility concerns, ones that don’t penalize players for simply trying to survive. “All of this results from how valuable these players are, and there is nothing wrong with that,” Bilas said. “While I don’t condone violating rules and laws, we need to change the rules to accurately reflect the current world. We used to fight over whether it was a violation for guys to eat a bagel with cream cheese or peanut butter! Why are so we so worried about all this stuff?”