Show Me the Money: Bribery and Scandal Hit NCAA Basketball

636420161513221488-usp-ncaa-basketball-ncaa-tournament-first-round-m-89581795As my Adidas shoes lay on the floor next to my chair, I opened this morning’s Wall Street Journal to find sports news on the front page (not a normal occurrence for the WSJ) about Adidas’ involvement in a scandal with multiple universities. The headline spoke of bribery and kickbacks at major college basketball programs. Coaches have been arrested after a covert FBI investigation.

The WSJ reports:

In one of several alleged schemes outlined Tuesday by federal prosecutors in New York, a top Adidas executive worked with others including a sports agent and a financial adviser to funnel tens of thousands of dollars to the families of high-school recruits to induce them to sign with major-college programs including Louisville. In exchange, they were expected to sign with the agent and adviser and, when they turned pro, choose Adidas as their sponsor, prosecutors say.

Criminal charges against the Adidas executive, James Gatto, and others were unsealed Tuesday as part of a sweeping crackdown on alleged corruption. The case also involved alleged bribes paid to assistant coaches at the University of Arizona, Oklahoma State University, the University of Southern California and the University of South Carolina.

Prosecutors said Adidas paid high-school recruits through third-party intermediaries to attend schools with Adidas shoe contracts. Prosecutors also alleged financial advisers and agents paid bribes to the coaches with hopes of securing college stars as clients after they enter the National Basketball Association.[1]

Every year during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, there are commercials touting the student component of the student-athletes participating in sports programs around the country. Many of these student-athletes are not on scholarships. They are at colleges and universities to get an education. Sports are merely an extracurricular activity. The image the NCAA wants to portray is an idealistic world where students put on the uniform of their educational institution for the love of the game.

Today’s news reveals what most of us already believed to be true. Major college sports programs are big business to many universities and can be the ticket to extravagant wealth for a handful of players, agents, and coaches.

With so much money on the line, some people involved in these sports have ventured far past the line of ethical behavior. ESPN reports that the coaches who were arrested could face up to 80 years in prison if convicted.[2]

What this reveals to me is that sports has become form of idolatry in our society. What else could drive coaches, players, families, and major corporations to participate in criminal behavior? Perhaps it is not the sport itself that is the idol, but the money it could bring. Either way, we are at an unhealthy place in our society.

Just this week I taught my Bible and Moral Issues class on the ethical implications of the Second Commandment. For the most part, we do not find ourselves fashioning graven images to worship in an American context. However, there are plenty of idols that we worship. In this case, money and basketball come to the forefront. Perhaps it is time for us to rethink the role of sports in our society. Particularly in the church, it may be time to focus our time, attention, and money on the things of God. In Matthew 6, Jesus tells us:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. . . . No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matt 6:19-21, 24)

[1] Rebecca Davis O’Brien, Ben Cohen, and Sara Germano, “Bribery, Kickbacks Alleged at Top NCAA Basketball Programs,” The Wall Street Journal, 26 September 2017.

[2] John Gasaway, “What you need to know about the FBI’s NCAA basketball investigation,”, 26 September 2017.

Holding Penn State Responsible

Back in November, I posted this article about the lost ideas of personal and corporate responsibility at Penn State University. This morning, the NCAA held a press conference announcing the sanctions against the university (and particularly the football program). In light of what I wrote 8 months ago, I want to evaluate the actions of the NCAA to see if they will actually serve the purpose of reinstating the ideas of personal and corporate responsibility.

Here are the sanctions imposed by the governing board of college athletics:

  • $60 million fine, roughly equivalent to one year’s gross football revenue, to be placed in an endowment for “external programs preventing child sexual abuse or assisting victims and may not be used to fund such programs at the university.”
  • 4 year ban on postseason appearances
  • Reduction of scholarships from 25 to 15 per year for 4 years
  • Vacating all wins from 1998-2011 (111 total wins)

The NCAA also put in place measures to change the culture of the university. The university must create a compliance committee and have quarterly reports from an independent monitor to make sure that athletics do not overwhelm the priority of academics at the university.

Let me recount the major faults that I saw in November. First, the university (and the individuals involved) lacked a respect for the dignity of the victims. There seemed to have been a concern for the personal interests of the perpetrator and those with knowledge of the crime, but there was no concern for the dignity of the boys. As each person up the chain of command refused to take personal responsibility for alerting the authorities, they diminished the opportunity for the university to take corporate responsibility.

The fine and intended use of the funds goes a long way to help address this problem. The NCAA acknowledges that the endowment cannot correct what has happened in the past, but they are at least attempting to recognize the dignity of the victims and their families.

Second, the problem at Penn State is that the university saw its own “family” interests as more important than protecting the institution of the family. These boys have been assaulted, abused, and scarred for life. Their family structure has been permanently altered because they have been subjected to a version of sexuality that is distorted far outside God’s design. There was absolutely no respect for the institution of the family on the perpetrator’s part, and there was indifference to the institution of the family on the part of the university.

On some levels, the punitive actions taken by the NCAA address this problem. With the reduction of scholarships, postseason ban, and vacated wins, the NCAA put Penn State and other universities on notice that their “family” cultures were not more important than society’s family culture. While it is not a clear admonition for supporting the family, the underlying problem is being addressed.

Finally, a fair and effective system of law and government is crucial to a healthy society. In this case, that system was in place to handle the problem, but no one alerted the proper authorities.

I believe this is the issue addressed in vacating wins, particularly as it has a huge impact on the record books. 111 wins will be removed from the record books. Perhaps more significantly, 111 of 409 wins will be removed from Joe Paterno’s record of the most wins in college football history. Coach Paterno will no longer hold that record. His failure to act in properly reporting the accusations against one of his assistant coaches to the police have tarnished his legacy on many levels. Now future generations will not even see his name near the top of the list of coaches with the most wins. The system of law and government has spoken in the case of Jerry Sandusky, who will now spend the rest of his life in prison. The NCAA has spoken regarding the failure to use that system on the part of the university.

The actions of those involved in the scandal at Penn State University are reprehensible. When given the opportunity to stop the perpetrator, the university failed to act and failed to take responsibility. Only after the egregious behavior was allowed to continue for 13 years has the university been held responsible. I applaud the NCAA for their actions, but I only wish they had not been necessary. I wish the university has stepped up in 1998 to stop the problem. Responsibility is best taken on one’s own initiative rather than forced by the governing authorities.


Evan Lenow, “Penn State and the Lost Idea of Personal Responsibility,” November 10, 2011.

“Penn State sanctions: $60M, bowl ban,” ESPN, July 23, 2012.