Big ratings, bigger baggage: Sweet 16 may show how fans feel about paying college athletes

Yahoo Sports

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It's Sweet 16 week in the NCAA tournament, and the bracket is loaded.

The teams are good — the entire top nine seeds have advanced, and 11 of the top 12 — but that's not the point. The bracket is loaded with baggage, too. This 16 is as much a scam as it is sweet.

A few years ago, Kentucky coach John Calipari and his two vacated Final Fours would have been the most controversial guy in this group. Or maybe Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, owner of a five-year show-cause NCAA penalty from his time at Indiana.

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Those were simpler times, before we entered the world of wiretaps and subpoenas and guilty pleas and Michael Avenatti putting Nike on alleged blackmail blast.

Now, thanks to the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office, we have a new nomenclature for college basketball. Play the following word-association game with this Sweet 16:

LSU: "Strong-ass offer."

Oregon: "Astronomical amount of money."

Duke: "Opportunities from an occupational perspective … cash in the pocket … housing."

Auburn: Bribe Central.

Then there is North Carolina, having escaped sanctions for the most audacious academic fraud in history, not to mention the violations that occurred at Kansas on Roy Williams' watch.

LSU head coach Will Wade has a word with his players, from left, Ja'vonte Smart (1), Tremont Waters (3), Naz Reid (0), Emmitt Williams (24) and Marlon Taylor (14) during a break in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Georgia, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)
LSU head coach Will Wade has a word with his players, from left, Ja'vonte Smart (1), Tremont Waters (3), Naz Reid (0), Emmitt Williams (24) and Marlon Taylor (14) during a break in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Georgia, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

There also are two guys strongly believed to be playing out the string in their current jobs before bailing for new ones: Buzz Williams at Virginia Tech, who probably has the family packing boxes in Blacksburg for the move to Texas A&M; and Sampson, believed to be ready to jettison the school that gave him a chance to rehab his image in favor of Arkansas.

And people are mad at Tom Izzo for yelling?

Now here's the kicker: a tourney swimming in sleaze has been wildly popular with the viewing public. Ratings for the first weekend of the Big Dance were the second-highest since 1991, and up 8 percent over last year. Live streams of the games are up 25 percent. Official March Madness social media accounts have had a 56 percent increase in engagement.

The Zion Williamson Factor cannot be ignored in this ratings surge (nor can his implication in the corruption scandal, see above and below). But overall, the message from fans seems to be this: We don't care if the sport is oily, we still want to watch it.

That would seem to put a dent in the NCAA's long-held stance that paying the players would diminish the allure of the sport. It's now painfully clear that the players are being paid — and people are still watching.

While the NCAA is grappling with that inconvenient truth, the tourney marches on with a rogue's gallery of key figures.

Duke forward Zion Williamson (1) reacts after getting called for a foul against Central Florida during the second half of a second-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Columbia, S.C. Duke defeated Central Florida 77-76. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Duke forward Zion Williamson (1) reacts after getting called for a foul against Central Florida during the second half of a second-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Columbia, S.C. Duke defeated Central Florida 77-76. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

Will "Strong-Ass Offer" Wade is suspended at LSU after the FBI wiretap report by Yahoo Sports detailed a rather unmistakable attempt by Wade to buy the services of a player via a middleman. That storyline remains prominent every time the Tigers play.

Oregon arrived here in Louisville on Tuesday still brushing off ash from the eruption of Mount Avenatti earlier in the day. The high-profile lawyer, arrested Monday for an alleged extortion attempt of shoe and apparel giant Nike, started naming names of allegedly paid players on Twitter Tuesday — and five-star Ducks freshman Bol Bol was among them. (Oregon athletics, of course, is the ultimate Nike creation.)

"I don't have any information on that," was the typically bland response Wednesday from the coach who seems to know less of what's going on around his program than anyone in America, Dana Altman. Bol, who made the trip with the team, was hidden away somewhere during Oregon's open locker-room time at the Yum Center and not available to the media.

But this ain't Oregon's first corruption rodeo of the season. During the federal trial last fall, a defense attorney said the program offered an "astronomical" sum for five-star recruit Brian Bowen Jr. During that same trial, the Ducks were aided by the sudden-onset amnesia of Brian Bowen Sr. on the witness stand when he said, under questioning, that he did not recall receiving $3,000 from Oregon assistant Tony Stubblefield.

At Auburn, Bruce Pearl keeps rolling despite hemorrhaging staff for problematic reasons. In November 2017 the school fired assistant Chuck Person, who wound up pleading guilty to accepting $91,000 in bribes in exchange for agreeing to steer players to an aspiring agent and financial adviser. At the same time, two other staffers — special assistant Jordan VerHulst and video coordinator Frankie Sullivan — were placed on administrative leave. They never returned. And then this month, assistant Ira Bowman was suspended after being implicated in a bribery scheme while working at Penn. (All of which is completely independent of Pearl's own three-year show-cause penalty for lying to NCAA investigators while at Tennessee.)

And then there is the star of this March Madness show, Williamson. His family was the subject of the wiretapped transcript read in court last October, in which Adidas consultant Merl Code was informing Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend what the going rate was for the freakishly athletic, top-five talent. Townsend said he would do what he had to do to make it happen.

As many have wondered, would Williamson's stepfather — believed to be the person looking for the handout — really say no to a flush deal at Kansas and yes to just a scholarship at Duke? Well, maybe — his somewhat surprising commitment to the Blue Devils came nearly four months after the scandal blew up the sport, which means everyone might have been scared straight.

That plausible deniability doesn't extend to all the five-star studs Duke signed pre-scandal, though.

Throw all the backstories onto a single steaming heap, and you have a Sweet 16 fit for Jerry Tarkanian and Jerry Springer. But here's the thing: America has long since proven itself a sucker for reality TV shows full of hustlers and scam artists. Why not one played out on hardwood?

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