(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Ugly Side of College Basketball

If you're a purist, read this and weep.

Those who would call purists naive and unrealistic -- and perhaps themselves realists -- still might be surprised at what one junior college coach and one AAU coach had to say in the linked article.

The article focuses on St. John's firing of head coach Norm Roberts, by all accounts a class act who just didn't win enough for the good fathers who run the place. The quotes from the juco and AAU coaches reveal, in a nutshell, their belief that the Johnnies cannot win and return to the top echelon of college hoops without at least bending some rules (and, remember, while the quotes are pretty interesting, I would venture to guess that some juco and AAU coaches won't be totally transparent about what they really mean, meaning, then, that perhaps their use of "bending" means, actually, "breaking."). Roberts played by the rules and got fired after 6 years.

What the article reveals -- to a degree -- is the ugly underbelly of what is a very big business. Play by the rules and lose -- and you're out. Great message from a leading academic and spiritual institution. Perhaps if more schools took a stand for coaches like Norm Roberts other coaches won't leave wakes of investigations and probation behind them as they seek bigger dollars and more prestige as they move from school to school.

The sad truth is that revenue sports in college have never been just an extracurricular activity. Their a big business, and athletic departments expect a certain return on investment in order to pay for the departmens' entire budget, other programs and new facilities, as well as to generate funds from boosters. That means that you can't settle for the 6'11" kid to show up and dazzle. You have to go out there hunting when the kids are 14, make your presence known, and figure out how to solve a bunch of his problems, from his test-taking ability to his scholastic ability to his sibling's inability to get into a school to his father's trouble keeping a job, or some combination of all of the above that some school might be willing to solve to put people in the seats and get the team to a Sweet 16 a few years in a row. It is hardly as simple as saying, "we've got a good program, we graduate 85% of our players, and you have a chance to improve and contribute here." Sure, that happens sometimes, with kid whose expectations are that playing D I ball is a privilege and not a right. When that isn't the case, people sometimes start to shake hands by offering their palm -- facing the sky.

So Norm Roberts leaves St. John with his head held high, as he should. He did his best, and he did so ethically.

But he wasn't a winner in the way St. John's has now defined the term.


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