As a former radio and TV host in Louisville, Kentucky, who still has prominent friends in the city, I have watched closely as this Greek tragedy involving basketball legend Rick Pitino has unfolded over the last few years. Today, just as was anticipated yesterday by those close to the situation, Pitino, along with his athletic director, were effectively fired amid an FBI investigation related to massive recruiting violations.
This was Pitino’s third major scandal within a decade. The cumulative effect was far too much for even the most prominent citizen of Louisville to possibly withstand, especially since he had spent enormous amounts of his credibility and good will (while effectively losing the school’s 2013 NCAA title) on the previous disgraces.
The primary person to blame for all of this is, of course, Rick Pitino himself. The most charitable interpretation of the current factual record is that Pitino is a very flawed man who ran a corrupt program and who lied numerous times in an ultimately failed attempt to escape any real consequences to him personally.
There are at least two other culprits, however, in this sad saga who deserve condemnation. One is the hyper-competitive, one-and-done cesspool that the NCAA has allowed college basketball to become because it was good for their economic bottom line (most people don’t realize that basketball is the NCAA’s primary source of income). The second, which I will address here in some detail, is the way that the local and national media completely enabled Pitino’s behavior.
It is impossible to overstate the significance of Louisville basketball to the city of Louisville. The Kentucky Derby dominates the city for a week, but for the other 51 weeks of the year there is literally nothing which captivates the attention of Louisville like Cardinal basketball. Even in the off season, the most popular topic of discussion is the annual Louisville vs. Kentucky basketball game.
Since there are no professional sports (at least not officially) in Kentucky, Rick Pitino and University of Kentucky hoops coach John Calipari have been, without a doubt, the two most well-known and revered celebrities in the state. This means that, as long as they are winning, the local news media, which has a massive conflict of interest in that they benefit directly from each team’s success, treats them like virtual Gods.
When you are treated like a God, there is a far better chance that you will think that you can do no wrong, or that, even when you do something unethical, that it is justified and that you will be able to get away with it. In Louisville, Rick Pitino never faced a local media which would act remotely like a watchdog. Instead, they usually were very much a lap dog.
In a world where the news media wasn’t fundamentally broken, the national media would have picked up the slack and held Rick Pitino accountable far before what finally happened today. However, thanks largely to ESPN (which now holds a near monopoly on dictating narratives in sports news), this effectively never happened.
ESPN has an extremely incestuous relationship with superstar college coaches, especially in basketball.
A dirty little secret is that college coaches get an inordinate amount of TV face time in part due to the fact that they are part of a program more than a handful of years, but also because programmers ostensibly feel that predominantly older and white viewers can better relate to the coaches than the players on the court.
This is especially important in an era when star players often leave after just one year and so celebrity coaches become the only thing which really connects the school’s team to its past. Therefore, coaches like Pitino effectively get revered as if they are movie stars, with ESPN playing the part of the production studio.
The most blatant example of this occurred in 2015 when Pitino laughably claimed that he had no idea that an assistant was holding numerous stripper parties for recruits in a campus building named for Pitino’s own brother-in-law who was killed in 9/11. At the time, Outside the Lines, the journalistic arm of ESPN, did two solid shows on the scandal, but the rest of the ESPN machine went totally silent and the bombshell story quickly died.
Had ESPN wanted Pitino gone at that time, they easily could have made that happened, but it would have been against the self-interest of the network and the specific basketball announcers who were buddies with Pitino. Instead, Pitino remained coaching, even after the NCAA came down fairly hard on Louisville (costing them the 2013 national title won under Pitino) and ESPN as a network downplayed the story.
Incredibly, just over two weeks ago, ESPN honored Pitino live on their College Gameday set as their weekly “guest picker” of college football games. There was zero mention of any scandal and Pitino, who was currently under suspension from the NCAA, was treated like he was basically a cherished member of the ESPN family.
So, should anyone be surprised that Pitino might think that he could get away with having a prized recruit paid $100,000?!
The sad reality of humanity is that power corrupts and ultimate power corrupts ultimately. A big part of what is supposed to keep powerful people in line (especially when they are huge fish in little ponds like Pitino) is a news media which is willing and able to hold them accountable, even when it is against their own self-interest.
The news media failed here at every level. Unfortunately, whether it’s in sports or politics, this circumstance is fast becoming far more the rule than the exception.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at [email protected].
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.