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Feinstein: The Phrase "Student-Athlete" Makes Me Want To Throw Up

John Feinstein loves college basketball, but he does not love what it has become

John Feinstein
March 13, 2018 - 7:47 pm

These are not the best of times for those of us who love college basketball.

The top echelons of the game are rife with corruption, and I suspect that corruption goes well beyond the FBI investigation to places most of us don’t even want to imagine.

Last fall, the FBI announced the arrests of four assistant coaches, implicated a number of big-time coaches and a couple of shoe-company reps, and, all of a sudden, Mark Emmert decided to form a "commission" to make recommendations on college basketball reform.

As if he had just learned there might be corruption in big-time college athletics. Where is Inspector Renaud when you need him?

Then, a few weeks ago Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports got his hands on expense account reports the FBI had acquired from an agent named Andy Miller, much of it involving a glorified runner named Christian Dawkins. Several prominent ex-college players were listed as having received substantial loans from Miller’s company. Several current players appeared because they’d either taken small loans or (gasp!) they or someone in their family had (allegedly) been bought lunch by the runner.

The headlines on the internet said that schools like North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Michigan State and Kentucky were named in the probe. This was big news until you looked further and found that only Kentucky had a player who had received anything resembling serious money. One Duke player’s mom had a $106 lunch. Two UNC players and a Kansas player also got lunch—allegedly. Michigan State’s Miles Bridges paid back the $400 he’d been loaned and didn’t even have to sit out a game.

There was also an ESPN report that Arizona’s Sean Miller had been heard on a phone tap authorizing a payment of $100,000 to his star freshmen DeAndre Ayton during Ayton’s recruitment. Miller was absent when Arizona played at Oregon the next night and it seemed only a matter of time before his "resignation" would be announced.

After all, if he was on tape authorizing that sort of payment, he had to go, right? Wrong. Miller held a press conference and vehemently denied the story.

The story was written by Mark Schlabach, a former colleague of mine at The Washington Post. Soon after Miller’s press conference, he appeared on SportsCenter and was asked exactly two questions. His reaction to Miller’s denial? “I stand by my story.” What did he think would happen next in this case? He didn’t know. The FBI records were sealed so who knew if exactly what Miller said would ever come out.

No follow-up. Clearly ESPN’s lawyers were in charge of the brief interview—questions and answers. The obvious follow-up would be, “Mark, did you have more than one source? If you didn’t actually hear the tape, how can you be certain the information you were given is accurate?”

I almost always side with the media and tend not to believe denials. I couldn’t help but notice that Miller said at one point, “I have never KNOWINGLY broken a rule.” Clearly he would KNOW that offering money to a player or his family would be breaking a rule. Was the hedge just in case it turned out he’d broken a minor rule along the way? That can happen to anybody.

I didn’t know then and don’t know what’s true and what’s not true. A friend pointed out that Schlabach, a frequent tweeter, hadn’t tweeted since February 25th. I just now checked and that’s still the case. Not encouraging.

I get a lot of radio-show requests this time of year, mostly people wanting to talk brackets and favorites and cinderellas.  This year, the conversations start with the FBI. Is this the end of college basketball—even big-time college sports as we know it? I hope so, I answered, but I doubt it. Unless the FBI has documentation from about a dozen more corrupt agents with real dollar figures attached to important schools, players and coaches, this would eventually be swept under the rug.

Sure enough, the denials have flowed like a stream going over a cliff. Everyone is, of course, innocent.  And so now, I’m preparing for three weeks of NCAA press conferences where we will be asked to direct questions to the "student-athletes." Every time I hear that phrase I want to throw-up.

My head hurts.

Before that started though, I needed to cleanse my soul. For me there’s only one place to do that: the Palestra. Anyone who has followed me in any way for the last 35 years knows how I feel about the place.

It isn’t just that it is 91 years old and still about as cool a place to watch a game as there in college hoops. There are no bad seats; you can smell the Philadelphia pretzels the instant you walk inside and PA announcer Richard Kahn doesn’t try to do verbal gymnastics introducing players or when someone makes a three-point shot. Kahn’s been doing this for 13 years; his predecessor, the late, great John McAdams, did the same for 25 years.

It’s much more than that. It’s the way the place FEELS. Yes, it’s the sign on the plaque on the wall just inside the front door: To win the game is great…to play the game is greater…but to love the game is the greatest of all.”

I never go to the Palestra without stopping in front of the sign and taking a deep breath before I touch it for a moment and then move on. It’s all very comforting.

There’s also the Philly basketball Hall of Fame that encircles the concourse. Photos, bios of the Hall members—many of them good friends of mine—and newspaper headlines from some of the city’s great moments: the national titles—LaSalle 1984; Villanova 1985 and 2016.

That’s not to say things haven’t changed. Once, every Big Five game was played in the Palestra. Then, big money came into the sport and the Big Five almost died completely during the 1980s. Villanova, under Rollie Massimino, wanted out; Temple President Peter Liacouras was more interested in building a football team that would play in the Sugar Bowl (his words) than in the history and traditions of the Big Five.

The Big Five might have gone away completely if Dan Baker, then the executive director, hadn’t convinced the schools to at least play two Big Five games a year. Massimino left Villanova; Liacouras retired and their successors came to their senses. The round-robin—each team playing four games—came back in 1999.

Now, only Penn’s two home games are guaranteed to be played in the Palestra every year. Occasionally, LaSalle, St. Joseph’s and Temple will play a Big Five game there, but not often. Villanova’s fans are such snobs they consider it beneath them to travel downtown from the Main Line to the Palestra. The Wells Fargo Center—an NBA Arena—is fine, but the Palestra? Dear me, we can’t go THERE.

What’s more, Villanova has dominated the Big Five in recent years. The Wildcats have won the last five Big Five titles, going 20-0 in that stretch, most of the games routs. That will change at some point, but Villanova isn’t likely to host games in the Palestra anytime soon.

So, it’s not perfect. But it’s still great. Two years ago, the Ivy League finally got around to having a conference tournament. Only the top four teams qualify, but that’s okay. The tournament is played in the Palestra and there’s no doubt that Penn’s 68-65 victory over Harvard in the championship game Sunday will ratchet up the grumbling that Penn has a home-court advantage that’s unfair.

You can only have a home-court edge if you’re good and Steve Donahue, who won three straight Ivy League titles at Cornell—without any home-court advantage--has rebuilt Penn. Tommy Amaker, Harvard’s coach understands basketball tradition enough to understand that whatever small hindrance it may be for him to play in the Palestra is more than worth it.

“Every basketball coach should feel honored to coach in this building,” he said on Saturday. “Sometimes, you have to think outside yourself.”

Exactly. Any coach who has an issue with coaching in the Palestra shouldn’t be coaching. On Saturday, I drove to Philadelphia and arrived 90 minutes before tipoff of the first semifinal. I did my circle of the concourse, stopping at the sign for several minutes. I ate two pretzels and walked down the ramp to floor level. I breathed what felt like clean basketball air. After Harvard beat Cornell, I interviewed Ivy League Player of the Year Seth Towns, who told me he chose Harvard over places like Ohio State and Michigan (he’s from Columbus) because he wants to someday make an impact on the world beyond basketball and he thought he’d have a better chance to do that with a Harvard degree.

One of Towns’ favorite quotes comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harvard, class of 1821: “Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path…And leave a trail.”

I doubt if I’ll hear THAT sort of quote very much from the "student-athletes" the next three weeks. More like, "I just wanted to step up, give 110 percent and help my teammates."

I walked out of the building late on a cold, sunny afternoon after Penn had beaten Yale in the second semifinal feeling very good about the column I’d written on Towns. More than that, I felt cleansed.

Thanks, Palestra.


John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—has spent more than four months on the New York Times bestseller list. His latest Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys—A Football Mystery in Black and White,” was selected by the Junior Literary Guild as one of 2017’s best books.