The FBI gave Kansas an opening to call itself a victim in a budding basketball scandal, and while that's technically true in a narrow legal sense it takes on a broader meaning when used by the school as PR cover. It becomes a laughable lie, ugly or worse in one sense and transparently empty in another.
The school's communications department should have known better. Using that word is counterproductive to the presumed intention, pulling the school's reputation closer to the fire instead of away from it. But more to the point here, the word choice makes it more difficult to have an honest conversation about the complicated black market that is college basketball and KU's place in it.
A blueblood program is between a Final Four run and one of its highest rated recruiting classes in history, and now faces the allegation that rising sophomore Silvio De Sousa — unnamed by the FBI's revelations but easily identified — was an unwitting part of a guardian's bidding war between apparel companies.
That the school remains in discussions on a 12-year, $191 million contract extension with adidas — the company that has allegedly "victimized" Kansas — only adds to the muddy mess.
This story packs enough for a series of in-depth and layered discussions, but let's start here: if it's proven that KU coach Bill Self or any of his assistants knew about a payment, they will likely be fired. And if it's proven that De Sousa knew about a payment, he will likely be ineligible and KU's 31 wins, Big 12 championship, and Final Four appearance last season vacated.
But if it were that simple, this would be a much easier (and shorter) column because here is a deeper truth:
So much money is exchanged so often and in so many different ways that those inside college basketball find it easy to believe KU and De Sousa were unaware.
Plausible deniability is an important thing, but there's actually another term for this, used by many coaches, including two who spoke for this column: "legally cheat."
Here's how it usually works. A parent, guardian, or someone close to a top prospect creates an AAU team with a sponsorship of, say, $100,000 from a shoe company. Well, it might only cost $30,000 to run that AAU team. This is how business is typically done. This is how shoe companies typically buy influence.
Or, agents can have influence. An agent can build a relationship with a prospect before a college can sign him. The agent has a certain level of influence, and can guide a prospect to a certain program.
You know we gotta get him back, the agent might tell the coach, which means the representation after the player goes to the NBA. If the agent signs the player out of college, the agent knows he can trust the program and a mutually beneficial relationship strengthens.
This is the inevitable result with NCAA rules that are antiquated, dishonest, and built for a reality that does not involve billions of dollars and competitive human beings.
There are so many people making money on this. Coaches, most obviously, but also recruiting services, shoe companies, trainers, consultants, nutritionists and, yes, of course, media.
AAU showcases sometimes require $350 per college coach. If a college sends its whole staff, that's $1,400. The charge is technically for a packet but coaches joke that the schedules in the packets are usually wrong, so what are they really paying for?
This is the world in which Kansas basketball operates, doing so with eyes wide open, and a coach who does not have virgin eyes. You can see all of this in the school's contract with adidas, and the ongoing negotiations for an extension.
The tendency is to say Kansas is foolish to sign its future to adidas so quickly after FBI allegations of an employee "defrauding" the university, but what's the alternative? Sign with Under Armour, the company that presumably put in the opening bid on De Sousa? Or Nike, connected to schools with coaches who've been arrested as part of the investigation?
"You can't clean this thing up 100 percent, no matter what," said a Power Five athletic administrator. "This thing hasn't been pure, ever."
These contracts are so central to the success of athletic departments that administrators and coaches call shoe companies "partners," not "sponsors," and you could say that when a company is giving you $191 million you work for them, not the other way around.
And in that sense, there is a cogent argument to be made for Kansas staying with adidas, and not just because the other options would come with the same rules risks.
As it stands right now, the terms of the extension would triple the payout to KU. The employee alleged to be involved in the defrauding is not in the contract, and KU — again, it's crucial that the school is not proven to be aware of any violations — can use the investigation to improve the deal's terms.
Maybe that means a buyout depending on the result of this or any future investigations. Maybe it means additional protections. Washington announced a 10-year deal with adidas last week, which a source said included "verbiage" to insulate the school from scandal. At the very least, Kansas will want what Washington got.
The cold truth is that adidas provides specific advantages to Kansas basketball. Not just the money, but the status of the company's flagship program. That provides recruiting advantages and exposure that wouldn't exist sharing Nike's shine with Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina.
If college sports were even a little bit about amateurism, and purity, and student-athletes, then Kansas would go without an apparel partner or find one without a profit motive.
Kansas won't do the former and can't do the latter, because that doesn't exist. This is the world it has chosen, the reality it lives in.
University administrators can extend their dishonesty by stretching the FBI's use of the word victim. It's a counterproductive and weak message.
But the rest of us can be honest about what's happening.
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