Saturday, March 30, 2002

Michigan scandal exposes NCAA's dirty laundry

        Cedric Dempsey can connect the dots. He can draw you a diagram detailing the insidious relationship of gambling and games. He can continue lobbying for laws banning betting on college sports.

        He can keep wasting his breath if he wants to.

        The outgoing president of the NCAA is engaged in the Sisyphean struggle to stop point spreads from polluting quasi-amateur athletics. It is a noble effort but one doomed to failure. For even if Dempsey were to succeed in abolishing legalized betting on college sports, illegal gambling is eternal.

        The best way to shield college athletes from gambling influences is to pay them enough that they're less susceptible to seduction. In terms of up-front costs, however, exploitation is a lot less expensive.

Tourney stars work gratis

        Since the billions of dollars generated by the NCAA Tournament never seem to trickle down to the people who play, some cynicism is inevitable. The Final Four is the most consistently compelling of our major sports events, but its dependable drama masks a culture of corruption.

        In many prominent outposts, college basketball is a game played by sham students, lured by illicit inducements, used like indentured servants. When Thad Matta bolted Butler after one year to coach at Xavier, the unpaid players he left behind were denied the same mobility as their highly compensated head coach.

        It is this kind of institutionalized injustice that makes athletes susceptible to unsavory characters who pay in cash. It is in this context that we should consider the startling events unfolding at Michigan.

        Indictments announced last Thursday allege that Ed Martin, a retired electrician and once a prominent Michigan booster, laundered proceeds from an illegal gambling operation by loaning money to Wolverines basketball players.

Fab financial aid

        Chris Webber, now of the Sacramento Kings, purportedly received $280,000 from Martin before he turned pro. Three other Michigan players took in a total of $336,000. Webber has declined to address the specific allegations publicly, but this old case ultimately may shed some new light on the seamy sub-culture of college sports.

        Someone with subpoena power should ask Webber whether Martin's loans were repaid. If so, were they repaid in cash? If not, how was Martin compensated? The mind races: When Webber tried to call a timeout he didn't have in the 1993 NCAA championship game, was it really an innocent blunder?

        Until all the dots can be connected and the oversights corrected, Michigan will remain a symbol of institutional negligence. Maybe that's what Dempsey needs if he is to move his reform rock uphill.

        “What may have to happen for this change to take place is a major, major scandal,” Dempsey said at a Final Four news conference Thursday in Atlanta. “Then, I think the general public will be more aware of it. Congress, hopefully, will be aware of it.”

        A man uses whatever tools he has at hand. If Michigan's scandal can serve some purpose, Cedric Dempsey should have at it.

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