The Mercy Rule

Where They Keep the Money

By David Roth

It's possible that there are some doofuses out there who can look at a Chris Paul crossover or an Adrian Peterson cutback or an Albert Pujols anything and see nothing but a constellation of dollar signs in action. But most of the people who bitch about money in professional sports are really bitching about how poorly that money gets spent. Admittedly, the amount of money spent on things pro sports-related—by fans on team-branded detritus and nachos, by owners on attorneys and Botox, by players on golf course-adjacent mega-homes that look like decommissioned P.F. Changs—suggest some questionable priorities. But for those fans who get their sports-related joy from feeling sanctimonious toward young athletic men with piles of money, the only option is a retreat to the world of college sports—a world that has the virtue of at least pretending to not be about towering piles of money.

Because this is the United States, and because sentimentality is the stickiest substance in the world, a few misty-eyed dads probably still believe that their football team of choice does things the right way and the coaches and players who get caught doing shady, rule-breaking things are more indicative of a society-wide decline in linebacker morality, as opposed to proof of ethical slippage in the program that (insert old white coach, preferably in hat) built. The smoldering poop-bag that is our economy is, of course, a testament to the wisdom of overindulging comfortable illusions. But the stakes in college sports are less obviously vast than those of the derivates market—this is entertainment, after all, albeit of the kind provided for free by disadvantaged teens—and the scumminess of big-time sports recruiting, like the transparent mania of a housing bubble, is easy not to see if you don't want to see it. In the story of the late David Salinas, we may have the best example yet of just how much the extractive economy in college basketball players can resemble the more familiar suit-and-tie dodginess of big-money financial fraud.

Salinas, a 60-year-old investment manager who also ran a high-profile summer basketball program in Houston, was under investigation by the SEC for fraud; he killed himself Sunday night. Which is awful—anyone who’s been impacted by suicide would say as much, and so should anyone who hasn't. But the story itself has a sort of nauseous promise, if only because of how clearly it shows the ways recruiting-related influence peddling works. According to reporting by Gary Parrish and Jeff Goodman at CBS Sports, Salinas counted numerous high-profile NCAA coaches—veteran dodgeballs such as Baylor's Scott Drew and Texas Tech's Billy Gillispie, as well as iconic University of Arizona coach and anthropomorphized glass of orange soda Lute Olson, among his clients. He served as both portfolio manager and as someone who introduced Houston-area hoops talent to big-time college coaches. The coaches reportedly lost millions on their investments with Salinas; an anonymous coach invokes Bernard Madoff in the CBS Sports piece. Before that, though, the client-coaches wound up landing some of the biggest recruits to come out of Salinas's summer league.

The toxic conflict of interest inherent in those two relationships is breathtaking in its obviousness. And the ugliness of an enterprising high-end street agent and big-ticket coaches doing some off-books trading in the human commodity of basketball players is on display here as well. It's early on in this story—the NCAA isn't talking about it, and (of course) the coaches involved aren't, either. It may be a bona fide scandal or it may not be. But it is a reminder that LeBron's collection of sunglasses, summer homes, and nuclear helicopters is not nearly the worst way for money to demean a game.

DAVID ROTH

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