The NMFishbowl Podcast: Jay Bilas

By Daniel Libit

Last September, the FBI and federal prosecutors in New York held a splashy press conference announcing the arrests of 10 people alleged to have committed fraud by paying bribes to college basketball recruits. Six of the nation’s top college hoops programs were said to be implicated in the criminal investigation, and there was instant buzz that it could amount to the most consequential intercollegiate athletics scandal of modern times.

Others of us, however, could only harrumph over the news the Feds had now decided to start policing the NCAA’s self-serving and idiotic rules on amateurism.

“I was very surprised that the federal government was getting involved in this sort of thing,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas tells me in the latest episode of The NMFishbowl Podcast. “It just seemed too small for the government to be involved in, and the theory of the case just seemed to be too shaky, to me. It didn’t seem to be criminal in nature.” You can listen to our hour-long conversation by clicking below (or download it on iTunes here):

Bilas is a former star college basketball player at Duke, who became a lawyer, and then a television commentator. Since 1995, he has graced the airwaves of  ESPN, becoming one of the most recognizable names, faces and voices of the game. Outside the arena, however, Bilas has developed another reputation: that as one of the most prominent critics of amateurism and the NCAA’s other player-suppressing rules.

This unique dualism — being both a paid exponent of intercollegiate athletics, while habitually condemning one of its central tenets — has made Bilas a subject of fascination and high regard beyond the sports world. Last November, the Atlantic magazine profiled him in an article titled, “The Case of Jay Bilas versus The NCAA will Now Be Heard.” A few weeks before, Bilas scooped the first interview with college basketball coach Rick Pitino, after he was fired for cause from Louisville over allegations, raised by the FBI, that families of two of his recruits had been paid to play for the Cardinals.

Today, a Manhattan jury is set for deliberations in the first case to spawn from that federal probe. On trial are three former Adidas grassroots employees, who are accused of defrauding universities by paying certain star high school players money under-the-table. Whatever the jury ultimately decides, Bilas thinks the basis of the government’s case is fundamentally misguided.

“This is not an issue of federal law, there is not a federal law that needs to change for this not to be a crime,” he says. “The only thing that needs to change is an NCAA rule. All what this is hinged upon is NCAA amateurism rules.”

Last week, as lawyers were wrapping up their arguments in the wire fraud case, Bilas and I spoke about the degradations of amateurism — something that we both very much agree on — and the scope of its culpability — something that we don’t exactly agree on.

Here are some key takeaways (click the relevant links to jump directly to that portion of the podcast audio)…

Bilas on the commercialization of intercollegiate athletics: “I don’t have any problem with the commercialization of these games. The problem I have is the commercialization and then the NCAA and all the member institutions telling us that there’s nothing to see here, (that) these players are students like any other students. And that’s a lie. And it’s been a lie since 1906 when the NCAA was founded. So, that’s the only issue. I don’t have an issue with how much money coaches make; that’s fine. I think it’s great. I think they should make as much as they can. And I don’t have an issue with how much the NCAA is asking for their media contracts. That’s great. But don’t treat the players like criminals if they want more than just a scholarship — that’s the biggest problem I see.”

Bilas on the broader impact of the federal government’s wire fraud case: “If the government did not do this, the NCAA and all the coaches (would) all say the game’s clean. ‘It’s great, nothing going on here. We’re doing great.’ They would all say that. And (while) it is limited right now to these defendants, you’d have to be pretty naive to think that this is not going on, on a much larger scale. You’d have to believe that these defendants were out there, rogue, bidding against themselves. And that’s a pretty hard case to make, that it all ends here…”

“Outside of maybe a few people in Indianapolis that have their eye on the ball, most people don’t care. They want their games and the want to bet on the games and watch them and watch their teams play and do their brackets…And I’ve been a little bit surprised by that. I thought this would generate a little bit more acknowledgment that we’ve had this  for a long time, that this has been going on forever. And this is being laid bare, to an extent, in lower Manhattan. And it has been crickets as far as the NCAA, administrators, coaches.” 

Bilas on what progress has been made toward pro-athlete reforms in college sports: “We have made huge strides. No multibillion-dollar business is going to give up this chunk of change voluntarily. They are going to have to be made to do it. But think about where we were five or six years ago, when the NCAA was restricting how much players could eat…And five, six years ago, nobody would have said, ‘Maybe we should think about letting the players benefit from their name and likeness.’ They’re saying that now. We are inching closer to players being able to realize their economic value and to wield their economic rights in this multibillion-dollar market…”

“The NCAA is (now) allowing its member institutions to do everything it can to keep from paying the players. So, they’ll (spend) even more money than paying the players would require, to keep from paying the players. And they are going to fight tooth and nail for that. But we have made tremendous strides and…the enterprise is being shown that it is craven in its approach, that there is a bigger gap than there has ever been between the players and the money elites in this —  being the coaches and the administrators…”

Bilas on whether highly paid college coaches are ethically culpable for the economic unfairness intercollegiate athletics: “When our government acts inappropriately, what is our moral or ethical responsibility as citizens? Are we to renounce our citizenship and leave the country if we disagree with our government? The answer would be: no. I would hope we would speak out and work to change policies and actions that we don’t like. I would hope that coaches would do the same. But, to me, there is a disconnect there: I don’t look at this as being a moral or ethical decision. To me it’s more: what’s the best policy here and are we doing things according to our rhetoric? I believe that answer to be: no.”

“Now, some coaches believe that players shouldn’t be allowed to transfer, that we should go back to the way it was in the old days…They preach accountability and all that stuff. And so they actually believe things are great right now. Other coaches say, ‘Hey, we should do more.’ They’re all over the map. So, I don’t hold coaches responsible for this; they’re not policy makers. I hold the [university] presidents responsible for this, more than anything. I think the rhetoric of the presidents is downright contradictory, to the point of being hypocritical.”

Bilas on why there aren’t more former college athletes speaking out against amateurism: “Because it’s easier, frankly. And I’m not asking for any credit on this, because I speak out. I choose to do that just because I think it’s the right thing to do. But, my life would be a heck of a lot easier if I [only] said, ‘Hey, it’s going to be a great college basketball season. Look at these great point guards we got. My goodness, the Duke-Carolina game is the best rivalry in the history.’ Life would be easier. I wouldn’t have to mess with dealing with issues of endorsements. I know that there have been people who have said that maybe we should go another way because the NCAA doesn’t like this. Heck, I do a speaking engagement every year at the Final Four, for an NCAA partner, and they’ve told me that the NCAA has asked that I don’t do it. I know that happens. But to me, whether I do a speaking engagement or a commercial is not that big of a deal. But I’d have more money, I’d be making more money if I didn’t say anything. And I know that, but I’m older now and I don’t care…”

“You know what I’ve always found interesting: I’ve never sued the NCAA. They are getting sued without me. I have not sued them one time. I am of zero consequence to them. All I do is talk about the issues of the day; that is all I do. They are getting sued by other people. So, if people think that this is coming from some big-mouth commentator, it’s not. This is a lot deeper than that.”

Bilas on why he cares if coaches break NCAA rules that he doesn’t agree with in the first place: “I don’t believe you change policy by breaking existing rules…I disagree vehemently with NCAA policies on amateurism, but I don’t think it’s right to violate those rules. I think there are other ways to attack the issue. I think it’s entirely consistent that rules be followed and think that they should be. And, hey, if you’re not going to follow them and you’re doing it in protest, then you should stand up and say that. Otherwise, how is anything going to change?”

Bilas on why multimillionaire Rick Pitino deserves our sympathy: “These coaches are making the money that the marketplace allows. I don’t have any problem with that. I point out how much coaches make to point out that this isn’t amateur… Rick Pitino was fired: now you could have said he should have known [what was going on with his program].  But, right now, I don’t have any evidence that he had knowledge that one of his recruits was being paid. I certainly think you could have some sympathy for someone who is in that position; that, if something was done in contravention of rules that you didn’t know about, you shouldn’t be held accountable for it by your institution and be fired. It’s not just the money; he’s the only one in this who has been fired. The only head coach who has been fired is Rick Pitino…I do have sympathy for someone in that position…If somebody thinks, ‘Hey, these guys have made a ton of money off this, good riddance’…I don’t share that.”

Bilas on compartmentalizing his love of college basketball and his hatred of amateurism: “This may say something negative about me, I don’t know: to me, the enterprise and the policies that govern the business around basketball are different than basketball. Whether the players are paid or not isn’t going to change the fundamental character of a practice or a game. It is going to be same. However much the coaches are paid, doesn’t change the job they do…”

“I am going to be doing the Duke versus Kentucky game on November 6 in the Champions Classic. I’m not going to go to Indianapolis and walk in that building — where tickets are going to be $150 a pop; and you’re going to see all these big shots around; and it’s going to be one of the highest-rated games that we have; and our football crew is going to be there with the college football playoff rankings coming out in between games; and all that — I’m not going to go there and look at this commercial spectacle and say, ‘This is a travesty.’ I’m going to enjoy it for what it is. Now, when we talk about policy, I am going to talk about how bad I think the policies are. I’m not going to be blinded by how much I enjoy the games when I’m dealing with a debate about the policies, themselves. I don’t know if you call that compartmentalization or what, that I’m able to separate these things out, but I love the games, I love basketball, there is nothing wrong with any of this. There is nothing wrong with the amount of money being made. The only problem we have is that the actions that are taken by the member institutions and by the NCAA are not consistent with their rhetoric…”

 Bilas on the only time NCAA President Mark Emmert agreed to meet with him:  “We got together several years ago…He came with some of his colleagues to Charlotte, where I live. We had set up a few appointments where I was going to come up to Indianapolis, but he always had to cancel at the last second. So, I said, ‘You come see me when you’re free.’ And I took him to play golf at my club. We spent the entire day together, had lunch, had a lot of interesting discussions. But honestly, I am not sure I have spoken to him more than once or twice since then. And it’s not been because I’ve not been available. It’s more, clearly, he doesn’t want to.”

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Featured Image by Edward Blake / Wikimedia Commons

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