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Why the college basketball bribery probe 'feels like a tipping point'

On Tuesday, the NCAA denied an appeal by the University of Louisville, ruling that the school must “vacate” its 2013 national championship title in men’s basketball and its 2012 Final Four appearance. The banners come down from the rafters; the wins are removed from the official history books.

That punishment was the result of a separate scandal from the current “Armageddon” that began in September when the FBI arrested 10 men associated with a widespread bribery scheme. But Louisville is also involved in this bribery probe (arguably it’s at the center, along with two Adidas marketing executives), and both scandals are part of the same larger truth: there is widespread, long-simmering corruption in college basketball. And now it may all finally be coming under the public microscope.

“This feels like a tipping point more than any other potential tipping point that I’ve seen in the last two decades,” says Pete Thamel, college sports reporter at Yahoo Sports, who is our special guest on the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast this week. (You can listen below.) “Will it be one? That’s a complicated question… At its very core [the NCAA] is a complex organization that is essentially membership-driven. And people in the membership really don’t want to pay the players, which is what this comes down to.”

Indeed, many who have followed the NCAA over the years are understandably skeptical that the fallout from the current bribery probe will really be so serious, even though Thamel writes that, “Hall of Fame coaches should be scared” and that university presidents ought to be “losing sleep” over what might come to light. Skeptics argue that we’ve seen programs vacate wins before, that it’s a symbolic punishment, and that not much changes over the long run.

But Louisville is the first to have a basketball title taken away. There have been Final Four banners taken down, but never a championship. As Yahoo Sports columnist Pat Forde argues, taking away a title “hits schools where it hurts.”

If anything, one could say it’s surprising that it took this long, considering how many scandals and disciplinary cases there have been over the years, for a school to receive this ultimate punishment. “I would not have had the ‘over’ on college basketball running for like 100 years and this being the first national title vacated,” says Thamel, “considering the environment and state of the sport.”

Former Louisville basketball head coach Rick Pitino on Oct. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Former Louisville basketball head coach Rick Pitino on Oct. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Again, keep in mind that Louisville’s vacated title, and the firing of head coach Rick Pitino, were the result of a separate scandal involving school officials paying for strippers to attend a party with student athletes.

But as Thamel says, Pitino’s firing was “likely an accumulation of sins” more than a punishment solely for the stripper scandal. He adds, “You’d have to turn into Ken Burns if you wanted to track every Louisville scandal that ended up undoing Pitino… Louisville is still facing more NCAA issues, still in the NCAA’s crosshairs.”

The other schools involved include Arizona, Auburn, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, and USC. “The Feds have this trove of documents and wiretaps,” Thamel warns, “that essentially incriminate dozens and dozens of college basketball programs… There is the potential for a rousing reverberation throughout the entire sport.”

But it will likely take years, not months, for everything to come out in full. One of the trials associated with this probe isn’t scheduled to happen until 2019.

“What this has literally proven, through receipts and wire taps, is that the high-end college basketball player is a coveted commodity,” Thamel says, “where decades of this black market has formed a market for them. And it’s getting harder and harder to ignore that.”

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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