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DOES THE U.S. SUPREME COURT REALIZE HOW IT HAS CORRUPTED SPORTS?
By enabling the NIL era, the justices have paved a career renaissance for Rick Pitino and other disgraced coaches — this as the legal gambling explosion turns March Madness into a sleazy free-for-all
Don’t you love how Rick Pitino is dressed in white these days? His sweatsuit is so blinding, we assume he’s trying to divert our eyes from all the smut. This is the man who didn’t monitor an assistant coach who hired escorts for sex parties inside the team dormitory, named for his brother-in-law, Billy Minardi, who died in the 9/11 attacks. The scandal forced Louisville to vacate its 2013 national championship, the only college basketball program to do so.
This is the man later implicated in the FBI’s investigation of bribery in the sport, pardoned only because the NCAA created a bogus parachute known as the Independent Accountability Resolution Process. “For five years,” he said, “they put me in the outhouse because they couldn’t get their stuff together.” No, they put him in the outhouse because he’s notorious, dating back to his eight violations as a young assistant when Hawaii was hit by probation in the late 1970s — or, in a sleazier moment, his admission to police that he had after-hours sex with the ex-wife of a former staffer on a table in an Italian restaurant.
No red sauce jokes, please.
Yet of course, at age 70 with a toxin-stretched face, Pitino is celebrated once again as he takes his ninth head-coaching gig in four and a half decades — after, chronologically, Boston University, Providence, the New York Knicks, Kentucky, the Boston Celtics, Louisville, Panathinaikos in Greece and Iona — at long-forgotten St. John’s. This allows him to keep living in his house at Winged Foot Golf Club, 21 miles from campus, and it allows him to coach in the Big East Conference at Madison Square Garden, where he’ll share residencies with Billy Joel and conjure a romance with his familiar New York song-and-dance.
More to the point, Pitino returns to the big time in the NIL era. What once were considered underhanded dealings are now legal payments to athletes via their names, images and likenesses. For this freedom, he and other unsavory coaches can thank the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in 2021 that athletes can profit from such perks. The decision has unintentionally whipped open doors to a career renaissance for coaches once disgraced, making us wonder if the court justices ever considered the collateral damage they’d cause.
In effect, they’ve enabled the NCAA to release Pitino and others from their outhouses and make fortunes for everyone during March Madness. For as long as Pitino wants — “I hope I can coach another 12 years, but I’ll take six or seven,” he said, with a six-year deal at his new stop — he can be dirty without being dirty. He’ll do so by hitting up old pals on Wall Street and billionaire alumni such as Mike Repole, co-founder of Vitamin Water, who already has pledged “endorsement” money to incoming St. John’s players.
“Today, with NIL, I expect to rebuild in months, not years,” Pitino said.
And he will. He always does. No one ever said he can’t coach basketball, with a pedigree including two national titles, seven Final Fours and a .710 win percentage. Only a fool doubts he’ll become the first coach to take four schools to Final Fours. It’s just the way Pitino has arrived at this juncture, slinking through back alleys and creating dark headlines at every stop. Has another Hall of Fame coach ever been so shady? The list of candidates is growing by the day. Just as Pitino was fired at Louisville, Sean Miller was dismissed at Arizona after allegations of recruiting violations and academic misconduct resulting from the same FBI probe. Miller landed quickly atop the program where he first displayed his coaching chops, Xavier, and he already has the Musketeers in the Sweet 16. This while his former assistant in Tucson, Book Richardson, took the FBI hit and went to prison.
“Book was loyal to Sean. Arizona was definitely more open to getting some shit done,” said Christian Dawkins, the twice-convicted agent runner whose influence runs through many hoops scandals, on HBO’s “The Scheme.” In the documentary, Richardson told Dawkins that Miller financed Deandre Ayton’s season at Arizona and was paying thousands of dollars monthly to players.
Bill Self was running a dirty-as-sin, FBI-targeted program at Kansas, yet was rewarded with a lifetime contract after winning his second national title last year. Will Wade was nailed in the FBI probe. Fired at LSU, he was rehired this week at McNeese State. “Poke Nation, saddle up. Our time has now arrived!” athletic director Heath Schroyer whooped.
Exile never lasts long in the college hoops racket. The beat goes on.
The bad beats go on, too, thanks again to the Supreme Court.
We are reminded this spring that the NCAA tournament isn’t about dreams as much as DraftKings. As one who always has enjoyed and covered sports for the actual competition, I was oblivious the other night during the final seconds of Gonzaga’s victory, wondering if Mark Few and Drew Timme will beat UCLA in the West Regional and finally win a national championship for the Cinderella-turned-blueblood. Silly me for not realizing a successful three-point heave at the buzzer, allowing TCU to reduce the final score to 84-81, sabotaged the wagers of those who had Gonzaga covering as a 4 1/2-point favorite. This is known in the parlance of ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt, a 56-year-old overgrown frat-house president, as a “bad beat.” The same applied to a game earlier last weekend, when Alabama led by 24 points in the final seconds and seemed ready to cover as a 23.5-point favorite … until Texas A&M-Corpus Christi hit a three-pointer.
Five years ago this May, when the Supreme Court cleared states to legalize sports betting, did the justices have any idea that “bad beats” would become a bigger deal in the bro-dude culture than who wins the damned game? Close to $16 billion will be wagered during the tournament, much of it by young people who think they’re invincible, unlike the 10 million-plus Americans who live with a gambling addiction … unlike those who’ve lost families, jobs and lives. Because Van Pelt sits there at night and glorifies gambling so his network can profit from the craze — without any cautionary statement — a new generation of degenerates is growing fast.
It’s not just ESPN — which soon will lay off another wave of employees, including well-known broadcast talent and executives, as decreed by Mother Disney — despite its new revenue stream. Most sports media companies are guilty of cashing in, knowing gambling is legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia. They don’t care how filthy is it. They don’t care if they’re selling out and abandoning what’s left of journalism. It’s a pathetic money grab, all wrapped around the dreaded “bad beat” and the addictive temptations dangled like cocaine. Van Pelt isn’t expected to lose his “SportsCenter” job, but if Disney still cares about fairy tales, as Sir Robert Iger claims in his final run as company boss, all gambling programming and references would be eliminated from the network’s future.
One of my best newspaper editors, Bill Adee, works as an executive at the Vegas Stats and Information Network. I’d never seen VSiN until recently in the Los Angeles airport, while I slurped soup in a quick-fix eatery and awaited a 6:20 a.m. flight. The studio looked dark and lonely as two men talked odds in Nevada. Adee can’t possibly be having the fun — and making the meaningful impact — that we enjoyed at the Chicago Sun-Times. He belongs in the legitimate media, though I can’t say the same for another ex-Chicago media person, Teddy Greenstein, who allowed gambling to seep into his professional work at the Tribune and fully belongs at a crappy online sportsbook. It brings back memories of my Denver days, when an editor-in-chief ordered me to comment about a local columnist, Teri Thompson, who was nabbed in a cocaine bust with a bookie. How many sports media people are gambling today, likely impacting how they write or talk about a story based on a bet’s success or failure? How many of their editors and program directors are gambling, too?
All of which is corruption. The Supreme Court has taken journalistic souls and reduced them to gambling touts targeting vulnerable misfits, who wager recklessly and hope a slimy coach can use billionaire buddies to pay players handsomely and avoid a bad beat.
At least the justices dress in black, unlike Rick Pitino.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.