This past weekend saw the sharpest possible demonstration of what makes the NCAA basketball tournament, otherwise known as March Madness, so thrilling as a sports spectacle and so repellent as a business. We witnessed two number-fifteen seeds win in the opening round, the first time that’s happened in tournament history. Lehigh vanquished the much-loathed Duke Blue Devils and an unknown Norfolk State squad beat a team with Final Four expectations, the Missouri Tigers. That was awesome. Then came ugly, otherwise known as the case of Kansas State center Jamar Samuels. Samuels, the team’s second leading scorer and a senior, was declared ineligible and summarily humiliated by the NCAA just twenty minutes before the Wildcats’ second-round game against Syracuse. What was Samuels’s crime? He’s accused of taking $200 from his Amateur Athletic Union coach, Curtis Malone. Samuels had to miss his last game as a collegian and watch his dispirited team lose to the top ranked Orange, 75-59. After the game, just being asked about Samuels, caused his coach Frank Martin, to grit his teeth with anger and grief.
I’m not sure which part of this to be enraged by first. Let us count the ways.
1. How do NCAA players, old enough to vote and fight in wars, not even have the benefit of due process? Samuels was accused, no more no less. He had no rights to appeal or defend his name. His team had to figure out a new game plan with twenty minutes to spare, while administrators furiously tried to lobby officials to change their mind. The NCAA’s absolute authority as judge, jury and executioner, is a recipe for abuse.
2. Jamar Samuels’s suspension led to the following headline that simply says it all: “Jamar Samuels Ruled Ineligible For Trying To Feed His Family.” His former coach, Curtis Malone, admitted after the suspension that he had given him $200 so Samuels could buy groceries for his mother. “Yeah, I did,” he said. “It’s the same way when he played [for me] on road trips. When he didn’t have money to eat, he ate.” He later told CBSSports.com, that he didn’t know that he was doing anything wrong. “If I knew it and wanted to hide it, I would have done it differently. The kid’s family doesn’t have anything and he called me for money to eat.” Neither Malone nor Samuels thought they were doing anything wrong. Malone had known Samuels’s mother for years and they live in a situation where poverty literally means not knowing how you will find food for the week.
3. Let’s say Samuels did take the $200. Let’s say he walked on the court with two Ben Franklin’s pinned to his shirt. My only problem with that would be that it wasn’t more money and didn’t come from the NCAA instead of Curtis Malone. This March Madness tournament brings in $10.8 billion in television funds alone, comprising 90 percent of the NCAA’s operating budget and underwriting the lavish salaries of everyone we don’t pay to watch. NCAA President Mark Emmert won’t disclose his salary as leader of his “nonprofit” but it’s thought to be in excess of $2 million a year. He has fourteen vice presidents, each of whom make at least $400,000 annually. They are paid to make sure Jamar Samuels and friends don’t get a dime. What proud work.