March Madness concluded last week. I can legally say that I had some financial skin in the game (which sadly didn’t pay off). I also enjoyed the games on the March Madness app, brought to me by whatever sponsor the NCAA is using these days.
Oh yeah, and the players got zero dollars. Zero.
Big time college sports has always been a con where self-righteous (mostly) white men bleat about scholarships and academia while collecting money hand-over-fist off unpaid labor. There’s truth to what legendary historian Taylor Branch has said about the NCAA system: It carries a whiff of he plantation.
The CCNY point shaving scandal didn’t start these controversies but it’s an early example of the hypocrisy. Days when Madison Square Garden was packed for college doubleheaders, with half the stands comprised of bookies and gamblers.
In the middle of this storm was the squad of City College of New York, one of the better teams who finally accomplished what no other team had done at the time (and which now no other team can do): win the NCAA and NIT tournaments respectively. But they didn’t just win it, they won it with a starting lineup comprised of three Jews and two Blacks in a sport that was still lily white to its core (even the pro leagues had yet to integrate). It would be a story that resonated over time if…
If they hadn’t got swept up in scandal.
Matthew Goodman presents an excellent historical narrative of the players, the city (how the investigations of point shaving took place amidst the backdrop of cops and corruption that led to the downfall of the mayor), and the circumstances. The spine of the story is focused on the young men who made up the team, their stories set in the tossed salad mix of New York City, what compelled them to do what they do, and the resulting fallout. Goodman is smart enough to know that, amidst everything else, this is their story and he tells it very well.
I’d easily recommend this one to anyone, regardless of how one feels about basketball or college sports or gambling. It’s quite the tale and it still has merit today, especially now in the era of legal gambling.