April 02, 2008
If you consume much of your sports news at Yahoo! -- and, really, why
wouldn't you? (/shameless brown-nosing) -- you're at the very least
aware of Josh Peter's fresh investigative piece on Dana and David Pump.
Before reading, I had no idea who the Pumps were. Turns out, they're
quite possibly the most powerful people in college basketball, and they have no direct affiliation with the sport. They're scalpers, connectors,
power brokers, relationship-managers, angry vengeful Gods, all of it.
They're the Fates. They're the people you should know about, but never do. (Yeah, now would be a pretty good time to go read that story.)
The Pumps, though I hadn't heard of them -- and I've yet to pass along that story to anyone who's known who these guys are -- are not the first of their kind. At least, they're not the first murky quasi-affiliated people to reach their hands into the pockets of college basketball. Sonny Vaccaro (the Pumps' mentor) has long been involved in high school and college basketball in some ethically questionable ways, steering recruits to shoe deals and maybe colleges and then who knows. The lines get really blurry really quickly. The most high-profile of these types is probably William Wesley, who has done his best to not be high profile but who has, through the work of TrueHoop's Henry Abbott, become so in recent years. Wesley is just like the Pumps: it's unclear exactly what he does, but he's always around, always doing something.
Where the Pumps seem to differ is that they seem aggressive in their relationships. When a college doesn't give them the coaching-search consultancy they're after, they have no qualms ripping the school to a reporter. They're openly feuding with Vaccaro about whether they're using their charity functions for power brokerage. People know them. Etc. On the other hand, Wesley is notoriously quiet about his intentions and never asks for anything, an approach that has let him get close to people like Michael Jordan, Lebron James, and most recently, Derrick Rose. Wesley is also a known and admitted friend of the Memphis program. You do the math.
Anyway, if the Pumps story does anything, it reveals the larger reality about college basketball: nothing is as clean as you think. Fans are often, sometimes willingly, suckered into quaint notions of student athletics, as if anyone in this week's Final Four is attending college because they really want to get that General Studies major. As objectionable as the Pumps seem in Peters' story, it's hard to blame them for doing what they do. It's the atmosphere that lets them thrive, the way a rash spreads in warm, damp places. (Not that, ahem, I know anything about that.)
I'm not sure what can be done to limit this sort of influence. Paying athletes is an occasionally cited idea, but would that really work? Would introducing more money to the situation solve anything? (It would make things economically fair for players, but that's a different argument for a different time.) If anything, less fettered financial incentives would most likely draw more people like the Pumps to college basketball, people ingrained in the sport but not beholden to any of its rules, people who work all sides of the coin and who always win, no matter who loses. More of these people is surely not the answer. But I don't know what is. Maybe there isn't one.
Regardless, these dudes scare me. Don't they scare you?