Saturday, March 7, 2015

Legacy's tale

Two things happened Friday, 300 miles and a universe apart. And if one had very little to do with the other, they both spoke to what college basketball is and is not in the era of the one-and-done and franchised Madness -- or perhaps what it is and once was.

One thing that happened was a Hall of Fame coach had his legacy destroyed in the time it took the NCAA to say "Have a seat."

Another thing that happened was two old and implacable rivals met to decide the championship of the Ivy League, the last Division I conference whose commercial brand is not all.

Yale beating Harvard in Cambridge was a throwback to a time when actual students played for universities that viewed them as such, and not as mere saleable commodities. No one on either roster is likely playing for some fat NBA deal; they're there to get fat degrees instead, while playing basketball as a pleasant diversion.

It's that distinction that perhaps explains why the Ivy League is the only conference left that doesn't play a postseason tournament, because everyone knows what those tournaments are about: They're  moveable ATMs, a way for cash-strapped athletic departments to squeeze three to four more paydays from their unpaid workforce. John Wooden, no fan of them, told me as much almost 30 years ago.  And it's even more true now than it was then.

The NBA's absurd restraint-of-trade rule (because that's essentially what it is) has turned the college game into even more of a cynical exercise than it already was. Coaches shamelessly milk 18-year-old mercenaries for every dime they can make off them; the mercenaries, meanwhile, just as shamelessly pass themselves off as "students" until they turn 19 and can enter the NBA.

It's a ridiculous state of affairs. And it has demeaned the college game.

Not that the college game hasn't done some demeaning itself.

The money-grubbing has gotten to the point where it taints everything, which brings us to the other thing that happened Friday: The NCAA handing down almost unprecedented punishments to Syracuse, including stripping the program of 12 scholarships and vacating a record 108 victories. In so doing, it reduced coach Jim Boeheim from Hall of Fame icon to just another guy running a dirty program. Whatever he's accomplished in his long career will now be trumped by how he did it.

And if that is his own failing, at least part of it is a product of the culture in which he moves. Most coaches don't set out to willfully break the rules. Mostly they become adept at looking the other way, particularly when the program attains the level of a Syracuse. Sometimes they do so consciously; sometimes it just happens. But it happens because getting to the Madness becomes all-consuming, and it becomes all-consuming because the Madness is where the money is. The more cash a program produces, the more it finds itself compelled to produce.

Except, perhaps, 300  miles away on a Friday night in Cambridge, Mass. Where the very quaintness of it all spoke volumes.

Damning ones.

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