Instead of prosecuting bartenders in speakeasies, let’s repeal prohibition


The federal government alleges that Chuck Person, Emanuel Richardson, Lamont Evans, and Tony Bland abused their positions as assistant coaches at Auburn, Arizona, Oklahoma State, and USC, respectively. The Justice Department and FBI charge that these coaches were bribed by sports agents and financial advisors to steer talented players their way. These same federal authorities are also charging that James Gatto paid out six-figure sums to players on behalf of Adidas to secure their commitments to programs (e.g., Louisville, reportedly) affiliated with the shoe brand.

I’m not building any parade floats in honor of any of the above alleged activities, particularly as those activities relate to an alleged willingness to prey on young men so guileless or trusting or both that they would sign up a financial advisor without even Googling the guy. But I also don’t particularly need to see my state actor visit its displeasure upon these actions through the draconian and imprecise medium of its punitive machinery. Above all, I would much prefer to free up my state actor and its limited resources for any number of other far more pressing prosecutorial needs.

Because, speaking as longtime observer of the business of mass-spectator sports on college campuses, we’ve got this one. Trust me. We can fix it ourselves without wiretaps or indictments, though, paradoxically, your wiretaps and indictments may be just the jolt that was needed to do so.

The challenge of reforming mass-spectator college sports has always been more literary than programmatic. We know what needs to be done (or at least the first and essential great leap forward), it’s just that it’s impossible to appear particularly smart or innovative in setting forth the necessary reform.

It turns out the answer to our nominal problem is far too easily stated. The answer is mere concordance with and acceptance of the reality that obtains in the rest of the world outside of North Korea. Let capital, talent, professionalism, and amateurism work out their own agreements in a thousand lawful negotiations every day, just as we do in just about every other field of endeavor.

Naturally, there will be new challenges introduced by being like the rest of the world in this respect, and we will need to meet those with an experimental and curious patience:

Maybe we can put something together that works much better for athletes, something that furnishes them with scholarships that cover them for longer durations and for a more varied set of contingencies, better insurance coverage, mere adult normalcy with regard to agents and contracts, and, yes, a trust waiting at graduation funded with a share of the revenue that they help to create. Experience will be the only possible source for answers on the “What do we do about X” questions that will ensue, so by all means let us begin acquiring that experience.

But our default mode of conduct can no longer be a quixotic attempt to wall off that “rest of the world.” That wall has always had tunnels under it and gaps in it. Perhaps this is because it doesn’t need to be there in the first place.

There is much that ails revenue sports, certainly, and a radical assertion of business-model normalcy is not going to usher in utopia. But to the extent that it would redirect some portion of revenue away from the ceaseless Veblen-level adornment of still another gilded college athletic facilities Versailles and instead into the pockets of players who make this business possible, it would be one conceptually unimaginative reform that is well worth making.

“The Untouchables” was a great movie and an even greater screenplay by David Mamet, because, beneath the camera work and shootouts and DeNiro, it was about what moral cost, if any, we incur when we violate even the most self-evidently dumb, misconstrued, or patently unjust law. For far too long, mass-spectator sports on college campuses have put its participants in roughly this same valor-free cul de sac, one where diagnosing the problem is elementary, breaking the rules is not heroism, and observing them seems tantamount to reinforcing error.

With luck, today might begin to change that, however indirectly or clumsily. Anyway, let us proceed in that hope. Here endeth the lesson.