Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

June 3, 2010

Feds, as distinct from fruit of the amateur tree

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 2:03 pm

One of the most pundit-friendly aspects of college sports is surely the fact that its scandals can so often be viewed profitably through the medium of a 20-odd-page pdf.

Take the ticket scandal at Kansas. Here’s the report, one that, admittedly, has its limitations. For one thing, it’s an internal report commissioned by the university itself, so it doesn’t concern itself with the role played by those handy guys from California, the Pump brothers. (By “handy” I mean semiotically. They just look the way guys who are “college basketball power brokers” named “the Pump brothers” should look.) In the version of the scandal bruted about by Yahoo! Sports, said brothers were dragged rather doggedly into the center of a crowded stage, one where tickets and, more saliently, cash were flying in every direction.

Who knows, when all is said and done maybe the brothers Pump will indeed turn out to have been the main actors in this sordid tale. But as KU’s internal report makes clear, when it came to making things really good and sordid in Lawrence the Pumps had a ton of on-site help. When a junior employee rather guilelessly volunteers to investigators the fact that he has $19,000 in supervisor-approved personal cash on hand, you have a problem specific to your own organization.

Maybe it’s a lingering reluctance to acknowledge actual crime when it dons a white collar, but in the most central and teachable respect the report is exactly right about something that even a sharp and usually trustworthy observer like Joe Posnanski got horribly wrong this time around. This is not a “college sports scandal.” This is criminal behavior (“downright theft of money which rightfully belongs to the University of Kansas,” in the words of the report), and a handy heuristic here is when you hear the words “federal investigators” you are looking at something far more weighty than whether or not a high school player got his grades changed or his rent paid. 

Which brings me to Eric Bledsoe. This is a college sports scandal, in the sense that any indignation or outrage we feel should be rightly understood at all times as outrage operating at one remove from reality. Indeed writers look silly precisely to the extent that they appear genuinely aggrieved by a player who, allegedly, had rules bent and rents paid for him by grown-ups in Birmingham in 2008.

The NCAA requires its athletes to meet certain academic requirements and to say no to gifts, favors, and cash. That’s the NCAA’s prerogative, and if basketball players fail to meet those scholastic requirements or if they’ve said yes to goodies, there are of course other ways for them to kill the year after their 18th birthday besides playing D-I basketball. That is the alpha and omega of all such scandals, whether or not the player in question will get to play D-I hoops, or whether one that already has played was granted that access under false pretenses.

Those are extremely low stakes, relatively speaking. If D-I experience were mandatory for all NBA draft picks, you’d have a genuine injustice to fulminate about. Happily, however, that’s not the case.

So long as the NCAA continues to require its athletes to be amateurs in the strictest sense, you will continue to see sparks fly as the larger world operates according to its own rational and perfectly legal but pointedly contradictory calculus. We should get used to it.  

BONUS roll-out! The Lew Perkins Fallacy. It’s been a rough few years for independent evaluators, be they auditors, credit rating agencies, or, yes, sportswriters. Kansas has noted that its ticket office had received a clean bill of health from more than one independent auditor. This means the auditors missed dummy accounts set up by one Charlette Blubaugh with too-clever-by-half names like “Harridan Consulting” (auditors apparently need better vocabularies) and with street addresses that, wonder of wonders, matched Blubaugh’s own past or present home address.

So in a sense I’m sympathetic toward KU athletic director Lew Perkins, who was apparently victimized by less-than-diligent due diligence. But the larger lesson to be learned here surely concerns the myth of the omnicompetent and irreplaceable leader, a myth that within athletic departments started with the basketball coaches but has now spread upward to include their bosses. Having an inflated sense of someone else’s importance probably isn’t too awful, but paying them according to that sense is.

Thus the Fallacy: If you preside over an operation that generates a lot of revenue, your compensation, no matter how absurd, isn’t absurd.

Let’s say I have an athletic department that generates a lot of revenue. It will fall to someone to lead that department. Now, you there, random Prospectus reader. If you’re a reasonably coherent sort, one who bathes regularly and stays on top of your email, I’ll wager you could hit the 50th percentile in your performance as the head of an athletic department. So I hire you.

Soon you’re pegging your compensation at five or 10 or even 25 percent of net proceeds or even gross revenues and telling me how very specialized and invaluable you are. After all, look at all this money the department is raking in. But it’s the position that’s the rare quantity, not you. Being hired into a position where your specious math is not only accepted but is actually expected is the equivalent of winning the lottery.

Perkins reportedly makes more than $4 million a year, which by my math translates into close to $2,000 an hour. Yet the department over which he presides had so little organizational competence that it paid “consultant” Tom Blubaugh (Charlette’s husband) $115,000 in a little more than two years, this despite the fact that for a good part of that time Perkins literally didn’t know Blubaugh was still on the payroll. Perkins could be an absolute genius in his field, but I could throw a dart at the KU faculty-staff directory, pay my random target $150K a year, and KU would see a dramatic upswing in the position’s performance-to-compensation ratio from the very first minute of my lucky carbon blob’s tenure.

Of course the Lew Perkins Fallacy isn’t specific to sports, much less college sports. It just so happens that fate’s happy updrafts have put me in the LPF’s path hereabouts. So: j’accuse.

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