The year was 1993. One day, the location was a park in Harlem. The next, a playground in Brooklyn or Queens. The subject was always basketball players and how easy it was for shady characters to funnel dollars to them behind the proverbial back of the NCAA.
I was covering high school sports in New York back then. At a time when the only O.J. who mattered was Simpson, everybody knew an O.J. Mayo. There have been O.J. Mayos all over this country for decades. Some of them we became aware of — Marcus Camby, Chris Webber, Keith Lee — but the vast majority we did not.
The topic of players getting handouts — particularly players from economically disadvantaged families, whose idea of prosperity is survival — is as old as sport itself. With so-called amateur basketball, we're talking about a system that evolved before any of us were born and will remain long after our days have expired.
So what exactly is the big deal, folks? We in the media especially need to stop insulting the rest of America's intelligence with all the rhetoric about another kid gone bad. When so many people willingly participate in something that is supposedly wrong, and everyone knows they are doing so, it's disingenuous and cheap — not to mention patently unfair — to single out any one player.
In New York, and later in Philadelphia, I learned how the game works: Sports agents, aspiring to gain influence over a big-time player, tell their "runners" to find the right spot and squeeze. The runners cozy up to a family member or a friend of the player, then open a bank account in his or her name. Or maybe, in the fashion of the day, they start a charitable foundation. The goal is to set up access to cash. The money can be used to buy sneakers for the player one day, lease a car the next. The kid needs to supplement his wardrobe or pay a relative's rent? Done. Over time, it's easy for a college athlete to accumulate loot worth well into six figures. The dollars, devoid of diligent investigation, are presumably untraceable.
The player gets paid. The runner gets paid so the player can be paid. The agent gets paid if, indeed, he snags the client. And all the various professional entities know they will eventually be paid, as soon as the athlete starts to generate revenue for them.
College basketball, like college football, is a billion-dollar business. Money pours into athletic departments, coaches' pockets, sneaker companies, hotels, airlines, restaurants, souvenir merchants, networks, newspapers and, yes, magazine columnists. Meanwhile, the laborers who are most in need are expected to watch everyone else pad their wallets?
Let's say it's true that some West Coast event promoter was used as a runner by the BDA Sports agency to funnel money to Mayo while he was in high school and at USC. Would anybody be surprised?
"Of course there are players getting perks under the table," one prominent Division I coach told me recently. "But it's almost never through the university. It starts early, with unsavory influences in their lives long before they even get to campus."
You may think a college scholarship is compensation enough. And in a perfect world, it might be. But a scholarship is not a guarantee of anything, least of all spendable green. I'm reminded of Don King's philosophy: "I could have a $1 million check in my hand to give to someone off the streets. They'll say, 'To hell with that. Give me $10,000 in cash.'"
Years ago, I was talking shop with an East Coast runner. "We're not going anywhere," the guy told me. "Know why? Because there will never be an end to athletes who have friends who want to profit off their talents. And there will never be an end to athletes who will let us in because they know everyone around them is getting paid."
I'll never forget those words. As long as today's kids know they're working for a multibillion-dollar industry for free, they're not about to fail to ask, "Where's mine?"
So tell me: What, exactly, is wrong with that?
Give Stephen A. a piece of your mind. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. But keep it clean!