College basketball has always been a different sport than its other mainstream counterparts.
It doesn’t have that natural audience tuning in which football does. Major League Baseball has a history unlike others, but folks continue to tune in during its lengthy regular season, while shooty hoops only sees large audiences during March Madness. Nor is college basketball even remotely similar to the NBA, which is the more popular brand of roundball.
By no means is it a niche sport, but it is far from perfect and is the least popular of the major sporting leagues in college and the pros (unless you include college baseball, but how many people would do that?). For that reason, among others, lovers of the sport are overprotective of it and everyone involved.
It is what it is. College basketball isn’t perfect. It never will be.
I have made this point numerous times: College Basketball can’t be “fixed” the way many want it to be, because the issue within it is the lack of talent that’s already spread too thin over the 300-plus Division I programs. It is unrealistic to expect quality play, efficient offense, and entertaining hoops on the regular. The anomaly is when good hoops unfolds — not when it doesn’t.
However, that issue gets compounded because of another problem, one which is actually fixable. It’s a problem which happens to be highlighted by the latest scandal of escorts, strippers, Rick Pitino, and everything else involved in the tangled mess at Louisville.
People who are considered to be ambassadors of sports, including fans and media members, are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to college basketball coaches unlike any other coaches or authority figures in any other walks of life.
Rick Pitino is asking for the benefit of the doubt, and he’s doing this by being defiant against the idea he may have known about Andre McGee using an escort service to help lure top recruits to Louisville. Pitino may have not known anything about it. That part is plausible.
Yet, Pitino has a track record of not being all that honest, and while everyone was convinced he would forever live in shame after being caught of adultery… he hasn’t. There’s a bad reason why.
Let me be crystal clear: Pitino’s failures as a husband do not mean he is a bad person. That is not the point. What matters here is that he is a proven liar — if not to us directly, to the very least his wife, the last person you can or should lie to.
Pitino shouldn’t be given the benefit of the doubt, but many will want to give him exactly that — and not merely Louisville fans, either. Ambassadors of the sport will cling to the idea that Pitino is still a man of values, a leader of young men, and other images media members have long used to paint a picture of the idea that college basketball coaches are not only tacticians but truly great leaders.
This isn’t anything new. It wasn’t that long ago that one of the sport’s biggest supporters, Dick Vitale, went ballistic on those who would even suggest that Jim Boeheim knew anything about anything going on within Syracuse. For Vitale today and Billy Packer in previous decades, there was and is no way that someone as storied and dignified — with the stature of a king in the 15th century — could ever know or do anything wrong. If anything. according to Vitale, Boeheim was wronged… that is what he said. Let that sink in for a minute.
Stuff like that happens time and time again. College basketball coaches have proven that they are much like the hour hand on a clock. We know it will strike a new hour every 60 minutes, yet we are always fighting against the idea of time — much as lovers of college hoops continue to fight against the idea that their beloved men of integrity, otherwise known merely as coaches, might be as flawed as everyone else.
That happens to be a large issue. The biggest of the sport’s ambassadors want to blindly believe in the idea that a select group of men is comprised of great people simply because those men are great at coaching basketball. Hey, Dave Bliss was a successful college basketball coach for some time. Does that make him a good person?
Other sports have this happen as well. ESPN, hardly exclusive in this regard, has long told you which athletes are good people. Marvin Harrison was long pushed as a good person by those covering the NFL because he was a good receiver and not flashy. Think about that for a second. Despite knowing very little about him, many media members considered him “good people” because he wasn’t flashy — which is a subliminal way of saying they liked him because he wasn’t like the other black receivers of his time who attempted to garner attention for themselves. (How dare they? After spending years as free-laborers in college, they honestly thought they could attempt to make money off their own name? I digress…)
Harrison’s ascent to the status of longtime media favorite highlights how batshit insane we can be in our attempts to judge players and coaches as people. Are you good at what you do? Do you happen to also not do things which bring tons of attention upon yourself? Do you classify as old-school, or traditional, or upholding the virtues of whatever your sport holds sacred? Good… then you are good people, apparently.
Rick Pitino is going to be afforded — by some, not all — a benefit of the doubt that would never be allowed to be given to one of his players. This, despite a history which says he should not be given that benefit. Many major media figures will either outright ignore the story or pooh-pooh it in favor of the “it happens everywhere” banter — which still doesn’t make it okay.
They will do all that while ignoring the issue why something like this happens in the first place. The entire fact that student-athletes (with almost no emphasis on student) are not paid. To get a leg up in recruiting, programs have to turn to other means. This is not to say that paying athletes would completely abolish some programs going above and beyond; however, it would help temper the craziness that can emerge in recruiting. It would also make it easier to throw the hammer at a program like Louisville for such infractions.
We can’t do that now, however. This entire scandal has more layers than a wedding cake. I am not all that appalled by what has apparently transpired over the course of four years. Even if Pitino knew, outside his lying, I am not too sure I would be that offended, either. While others will try to deflect the story from Pitino and Louisville to the escort mom who pimped out her kids, none of it truly resonates in my belly as disgust. The anger is real, yet we need to understand that Katina Powell was in the profession. Much as a person who creates weapons for a living justifies his creations of death as simply being a job, Powell likely justifies her pimping of daughters as not immoral, but merely trying to make life better.
Again, I digress and apologize for the personal aside above. Yet, let’s not try to oversimplify this truly complex discussion if we are trying to have it as a whole — although this is one instance in which the escort mom and the sports aspect can be mutually exclusive.
There are so many problems to confront within college basketball. It will never be as good as the NBA. The talent is simply not there. It never will be. It is impossible in a logistical sense. If there were enough players in the world to make college basketball as entertaining, efficient, and fluid as a sport as the NBA, then the NBA would have long ago expanded to over 100 teams.
While college basketball’s largest stars are its coaches, which is a large reason many are so protective of them, it does not mean we should continue to blindly ignore all the flaws the game itself has or the coaches’ issues which should make them anything but mythological. We have to get away from coach worship, from making these ordinary and flawed people into Greek figures on a lofty mountaintop.
It should go without saying that not all coaches are liars or sleazy cutthroat opportunists. Again, it could be the case here that Pitino is telling the truth. However, we shouldn’t believe him. There’s no reason to — even though college basketball ambassadors will sing his praises as they have for other coaches who were caught in lies in the past.
We shouldn’t give Pitino the benefit of the doubt because we are all adults. We can handle the fact that people are imperfect, that a sport will never be more than what we want it to, and that we don’t need integrity within a sport or its superstars to enjoy watching it. We don’t have to be hyperprotective of coaches who are just trying to win games, and don’t need to be turned into paragons of morality and wisdom, people they never were and never will be.
It is only basketball, right? These guys aren’t looking for the cure for cancer, or the solution to the problems in the Middle East.
Let’s stop acting as though Rick Pitino and other college basketball coaches are bigger than the game, and are inherently better men than the rest of us… just because they’ve reached a lot of Final Fours.