Category Archives: College Basketball

Time to Give College Football Players the Same Leverage as their Coach

Kelly's headset was barely off before he was headed to Philly to discuss and NFL job.

Kelly’s headset was barely off before he was headed to Philly to discuss and NFL job.

Maybe it’s the timing that got under my skin. Had the jet carrying beaten and battered Notre Dame even touched down back in South Bend before Irish head coach Brian Kelly was straightening his tie and fussing with his hair awaiting a meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles to discuss their vacant head coach position?

It seems like he sneaked off to another gate and booked for the Northeast as his players continued to ice down and soothe their wounds from the beat-down they endured against national champion Alabama.

Just so we’re clear: I have absolutely no problem with college coaches striking while the confetti is still raining down on their shoulders and leverage their success for a fatter paycheck. No problem at all.

God Bless Penn State’s Bill O’Brien for doin’ the NFL Dance before “deciding” (wink) to $tay at Penn State earlier this week. Last fall, the man took perhaps the most toxic and unpredictable college gig in America and handled it with dignity and success, winning more games (eight) than anyone thought he would.

Oregon’s Chip Kelly was more like that guy on the dance floor who thinks he has some moves. His awkward twirl with Cleveland, Philadelphia and reportedly Buffalo was actually pathetic. He’s been dancing for a few seasons now and it seemed as if he was a goner for sure. And good for him. Like many coaches, it seemed like he wanted to someday coach at the highest level. But after all but calling for a U-Haul, he $suddenly decided go stay in Eugene, much to the shock of many and the delight of Duck faithful.

Now, here’s the other Kelly, the Irish savior–who three years ago was a relatively unknown Kelly at Cincinnati–standing at the precipice of Notre Dame lore. Dude was being sized-up for a pedestal that would stand alongside those hoisting Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz as Irish coaches who won national championships. (A coach name Elmer Layden won one there, as well (1938) but alas I don’t believe he stands atop a pedestal, at least not one in South Bend.

But before the Irish defense has stopped flinching at the thought of ‘Bama’s 6′-2″, 220-pound running back Eddie Lacy, Kelly was dancin’.

Okay, so the confetti was raining on Nick Saban, not him, but Kelly was leveraging a blowout like nobody’s business–as is his right. But the timing was a bit stinky to me.

Moreover, his players couldn’t execute such leverage. What if they could? What if, say, Johnny Football (aka Maisel), the freshman Heisman Trophy winner, could have walked into head coach Kevin Sumlin office the morning after arriving back in Texas from New York and said, “Coach, I may not be any hotter than this, I’m heading to the NFL!”

But he can’t. Unless his potential one-and-done buddies on the basketball team, Johnny Football and other college players aren’t eligible for the NFL draft until they’ve been out of high school for three years.

We could debate all night about the merits of one-and-done, and in an age when the strength and condition programs at top college rival those of the NFL, I’m not wholly buying the idea that football is more physical and therefore the players should stay in college. They should at least be able to earn a living during the few years their bodies (and, ahem, their brains) will tolerate the game.

They should at least be able to do what their millionaire coaches do and leverage their success for economic gain.

They should at least be able to dance.

The Syracuse Mess: Boeheim’s Mess Now

Photo By BRADLEY C BOWER/REUTERS

What did Jim Boeheim know and when did he know it?

That’s the essential question that must be answered in light of the firing of assistant coach Bernie Fine today, which was based on the release of a tape of Fine’s wife expressing her reservations about her husband’s proclivities for young boys.

We might not be so curious had not Boeheim, yet another iconic coach figure, so vehemently defended Fine just awhile ago when allegations afgaist Fine first became public. Today, he released the proverbial “statement”:

“The allegations that have come forth today are disturbing and deeply troubling. I am personally very shocked because I have never witnessed any of the activities that have been alleged. I believe the university took the appropriate step tonight. What is most important is that this matter be fully investigated and that anyone with information be supported to come forward so that the truth can be found.”

Them he added: “I deeply regret any statements I made that might have inhibited that from occurring or been insensitive to victims of abuse.”

Might have been?!

Really, coach?

Especially in the very recent light of what occurred at Penn State.

Apparently some coaches and administrators at “big-time sports” schools might have still that that it couldn’t happen here, and if it did I am still in control.

So…

…are we all clear now?

Overseas Reality Check

The plethora of NBA stars considering taking their talents overseas to locals such as Turkey, Russia and Asia should the lockout slice into the 2011-12 regular season might want to reach out to fellow superstar Diana Taurasi for some been-there, done-that advice.
Taurasi, probably the best female basketball player on the planet, played for Turkish club Fenerbahce last winter (before a screwed-up positive drug test, of which she was quickly absolved, cut the season short). She previously played five years in Russia, and has signed to return to Turkey following the current WNBA season.
Her message to the Derons, Dwights, Kobes et al who are pondering playing on other shores? “It’s a culture shock, a different world,” she told me this week. “If you’re used to doing things one way, living a certain lifestyle and jumping on and off charters, you’ll be in for a shock. Sometimes you’ll take a three-hour flight then a three-hour bus ride to some of the smaller cities not because the teams are cheap but because it’s he only way to get there… You cannot [join an overseas team] and say, ‘This is how we do at, say, UConn or in the NBA.’ They don’t care.”
Some players will likely negotiate better-than-typical accomodations, but they’ll still be nothing like the Ritz or other five-star venues teams and the league typical use when traveling-domestic or especially internationally.
And if they think they’ll only have to sweat through one practice a day, as is done here, forget it. “There’s standard two-hour morning and afternoon practices. And that’s for women’s basketball, men’s basketball, volleyball, handball, whatever.. It’s just the European way of doing things, and there’s no [collective-bargaining agreement] to help.”
Earlier this month, Josh Childress of the Phoenix Suns, who played two seasons in Greece said his experience was no day on the beaches of Mykonos. “No, I wouldn’t,’ he told ESPN’s Rich Bucher when asked if he’d play overseas should games be cut by the lockout. “And I don’t know why guys would. I understand that guys really want to play. But you sometimes have to look at what you have and treat this as a business. The only way I could see it making sense is if you’re a player from a particular country going back. But for an American player with a good-sized guaranteed deal here, I can’t see why you’d do it.”
Taurasi says the difficulties and differences for Americans aren’t limited to life off the court. The former WNBA MVP and four-time scoring leader also led the Turkish league in scoring (24.6 points per game) but says the way the game is played overseas is different and requires outsiders to adjust. “They have a different mindset,” Taurasi said. “All their philosophies about offensive and defensive basketball are completely different. They have their own style of play, more team-oriented. The coaching style is different; they don’t want you to average 30. They want you to fit into their rotation and scheme. You have to adjust.”
Now, Taurasi wasn’t being discouraging, just offering a bounce-pass of advice. “First, really educate yourself about where you’re going to play. See what kind of resources they’ll have for you–like a translator, people who can help you off court. Check to see if there’s an American coach and a trainer that can work out with you separately.
“Most of all, keep an open mind and enjoy it.”
And yet: “They’re paying you the big bucks, so you just do what they say.”

Someone Must Die (So College Sports May Live)

Shutting down a vaunted program will send a much-needed message: No cheaters allowed!

I was heartened by what I heard coming out of last week’s annual gathering of athletic directors and rising star assistant coaches known as the Villa 7 conference at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. In an age when college sports is dissolving into a backwash of lies, cheating and other sordid scandals, the men and women who hope to be head coaches say they want no part of it and would like the NCAA to issue stiffer sanctions to those programs caught afoul of the rules.

VCU coach Shaka Smart’s vivid quote in The New York Times has been widely viewed as the kind of bold stance college sports’ next generation of coaches seems willing to embrace in order to avoid falling into the same mud hole that is swallowing so many of their predecessors:

“To me, there’s a way to dissuade people from violating the rules,” he said. “It’s to penalize more. In some cultures, if you steal, they cut your hand off. They probably have a lot less theft.”

Allow me to Shaka-it-up even more: In order to truly begin cleansing college sports, the NCAA must revive the death penalty.

More correctly, the organization must be willing to use it again.

The death penalty is, of course, the NCAA’s ultimate sanction: shutting down a program for at least an entire season. No more games. Cue the crickets.

It was most famously levied against SMU’s football program in 1986 when, while already on probation for major recruiting violations, the Mustangs were found to be paying players through an elaborate subterfuge aided and abetted by athletic department officials and an arrogant booster. (That’s redundant, I know.)

The NCAA shuttered the program for the 1987 and 1988 seasons. It was the first use of the new “repeat violator” rule, which allowed the NCAA to shut down a sport for one or two seasons if an institution committed a second major violation in five years.

Not surprisingly, the move devastated the Mustangs program, which had been widely respected and among the most successful in the nation. Hence the catchier “death penalty” moniker was born. Only just now, after nearly a quarter century, is SMU football beginning to hold its head high again.

The deep and sobering impact the death penalty had on SMU has seemed to make the NCAA skittish about levying it ever since.

But it has done so — sort of.

In 2003, the NCAA squashed historically black Morehouse College’s soccer team and banned it until 2006 after discovering recruiting violations involving two Nigerian players and a “lack of institutional control.” (Allegedly, some school officials didn’t even know the school had a soccer team!) Today, soccer at Morehouse is an intramural sport. Division III MacMurray College lost its 2006 and 2007 seasons after the school was found to have provided scholarships to 10 international players. The violation? Division III schools are not allow to offer athletic scholarships.

So while the NCAA has swung its big stick, it hasn’t come close to the big fat piñatas hanging in the middle the room — the ones plastered with names such as Auburn, UConn, North Carolina, Ohio State, USC, Tennessee and myriad other major universities with recent or future appointments with the NCAA.

And in the meantime, many of those schools have thrived on the field. Added Smart: “I think it’s pretty clear to a lot of people in this business that a lot of people who have broken the rules or bent the rules have prospered.”

No school feels any threat that its money-printing and money-burning machines — uh, programs, rather — might be deleted for something as trivial as, say, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to a street agent or family member for delivering a star player or “money handshake” or lying to NCAA investigators.

That’s why, in part, we are where we are — cringing at the daily headlines of impropriety run amok.

Until coaches, administrators and boosters do know their precious games can be eliminated, until they truly believe the NCAA will recast the hell of oblivion experienced by Mustangs football upon any institution that spits upon the rules, college sports will sink deeper and deeper into the mud hole.

And too, more and more coaches with stellar dossiers — icons such as Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and the once-celebrated (now exiled) former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl — will reek of the stench of impropriety. Or be out of a job.

It’s no mystery why a few “new” schools were widely cheered over the last year for more than their success on the football field or basketball court. Stanford (disclosure: it’s my alma mater), Butler and VCU were among those institutions lauded not only for winning but also for doing so “the right way.”

Translation: They didn’t cheat. At least not that we know.

Sure, we all root for our schools. And the more they win, the closer they get to a championship of any sort, the easier it is to cheer for them, no matter which “way” they got there.

But my tolerance is waning. Fast.

And, thankfully, the next generation of coaches doesn’t seem to walk in the same muddy trails. Nor are they afraid to say so.

This fall, Ohio State and Auburn will be among the institutions that open their seasons beneath the cloud of an NCAA investigation that could affect their records in recent seasons.

Now is the time for the NCAA to let them, and all schools, know that their misdeeds will cost them, dearly. Perhaps for illegally texting a recruit … off with their thumbs!

Butler Can Still Do It

Butler was bad. Really bad. Historically bad. Yeah, they played hard. Yeah, they didn’t quit. But they stunk. The Bulldogs couldn’t shoot (just 18% overall, and only three 2-point FGs), couldn’t even get close to the basket (zero points in the paint until late in the game), and in the end they couldn’t keep up with maybe the red-hottest team in sports, UConn, losing 53-41 in the national championship game.
And Butler picked the worst time to look so lame-during their second turn on college basketball’s biggest stage.
On Twitter and elsewhere, critics were understandably out for blood. Some called the Bulldog’s performance an affirmation that while we all like Cinderella, we don’t really want her at the dance. Others said it was a loss for mid-majors everywhere, after making so much progress in recent years that the nom itself was becoming inappropriate. Still others just said they choked under the glare of the moment.
My before-one-shining-moment take was simply this: I do not want to hear another peep from the guys at my neighborhood bar who always whine about how much better college basketball is than the NBA. That argument is done!
But I won’t dwell on last night. Nor should the critics.
Butler was reached back-to-back championship games, an accomplishment not to be diminished.
And they did elevate the status of mid-majors, as did the likes of VCU, Richmond and even Morehead State this year.
They’re here and because their players tend to stay for at least three and in most cases four years, they’ll remain legitimate Final Four contenders. Cinderella will be back. Get used to it.
As for Butler, its legacy should not be tarnished by one miserable moment.
Let’s see if Brad Stevens can build on the climb and not crippled by the fall. Let’s see if he can recruit a Kemba Walker, the player who can actually break down a defense and get his teammates free for open looks. Let’s see if he can recruit a Jeremy Lamb, an athletic shot-blocker with a deft shooting touch. Let’s see if he can recruit an Alex Oraikhi, a clog-up-the-paint stud.
And this isn’t just on Stevens and Butler. By deciding to stay at VCU (albeit after collecting a 400% raise), had coach Shaka Smart-and other mid-major coaches-will play a part in shaping the Butler legacy. If they can not recruit the young man who might have otherwise gone to a school with the big name on the uni, then what Butler and their peers did this season will not go unrecognized.
In fact, it would have changed the game-and for the better.

NCAA (a/k/a Kollege Keystone Kops) Strikes Again

So let’s see. Agents are enriching college athletes’ families and friends like Extreme Makeover. Former players and other alums are running amok trying to build new ties. And boosters are still luring recruits with tales of their institution being the promi$ed land.

And the NCAA goes ballistic on a college freshman over his Facebook page?

File this as yet another chapter of College Sports’ Keystone Kops, under “you couldn’t make this up.”

North Carolina State freshman Taylor Moseley received a “cease and desist” letter from the NCAA after its “investigators” uncovered, after weeks of intense discovery no doubt, the kid had created a Facebook group imploring John Wall, a 6-4, 185-pound senior point guard from Word of God Academy in Raleigh, N.C., to attend N.C. State.

Wall (above) might be the nation’s most coveted recruit.

The group – called “John Wall PLEASE come to NC State!!!!” – attracted more than 700 members. But it apparently violated NCAA Division I Bylaw 13.02.13.

The rule targets “individuals who would develop a social networking site or use an existing one to send recruiting messages to prospective student-athletes,” according to NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson. “Those communications are not allowed.”

The letter to Moseley said: “Should this activity not cease and/or it continues in the future, we will have no choice but to take further action.” Such “action” might include barring the student from getting even student tickets to games or “disassociating” the school from the student, like some scofflaw booster.

Way to go, NCAA. Now we are all criminals.

All of us who are fans. All of us who would like to see our alma mater land the best athletes.

All of us who have integrated the newest communications technology into our lives. And that’s a lot of us. Some estimates say there are nearly 200 million Facebook members in four languages.

That could mean a lot of C & D letters. And a lot of silliness. Not to mention millions of possible violations of First Amendment free-speech rights. “NCAA legislation hasn’t caught up with technology, and that’s being discussed nationally,” Michelle Lee, N.C. State’s interim associate athletic director for compliance told the Charlotte News & Observer.

All Moseley did was what fans across the nation have done for years, use whatever means available to induce a top recruit to attend their school. A generation ago, there might have been telephone calls or letters or even fresh-baked desserts delivered to their home.

Later it became e-mail and even later text messages to recruits. Many, if not most, come from other kids, students, not big-bellied, deep-pocketed boosters.

Where does it end?

And is this may be just a start. Not surprisingly, there are several Internet-based sites encouraging (begging?) Wall to attend various schools. (According to the News & Observer, Wall is still choosing among Duke, Memphis, Baylor, Kansas, Miami, Kentucky and N.C. State)

Moseley deleted his original group, then launched “Bring a National Title back to NC STATE!” Wall’s name is nowhere on the site, only his picture.

Smart kid. No doubt, the NCAA keystones are on the case, while the those who are truly out there tainting a system continue to run amok.

AP photograph

OU a Hoops School? What Would Bud Do?

The Sooner was college hoops' monster in '09

The Sooner was college hoops' monster in '09

My calendar’s all outta sync. Yeah, I know it’s March, and I’m well aware that it’s Spring (although Winter’s still got a death-grip on things here in the Northeast).

But growing up in Oklahoma (Tulsa), there were only two true seasons – football and spring football. Otherwise, we all hibernated.

Now I’m watching the highlights last night and there’s Bob Stoops, the Sooner football coach, sitting courtside at an Oklahoma City Thunder game, not too far from former OU quarterback J.C. Watts (he spent a bit of time in Congress, too, but we don’t care about that). Both guys looked kinda out of place, but they were there.

A couple of weeks ago, budding-star golfer Anthony Kim, who teed it up at Norman, sat courside at a Sooner basketball game, cheering a team that is threatening to alter OU status as a pure-bred don’t-talk-to-me-’bout-no-hoops football school.

What in the name of Bud Wilkinson….

The Sooners were actually a concussion away from being the No. 1 team in the nation this season. Star/stud Blake Griffin went down early against Texas in late February, and the Sooners lost only their second game of the season, 73-68.

Still, they’re one of the strongest teams still standing in the NCAA tournament (yes, I have them going to the Final Four) and yet they still seem like they’re crashing a party.

Then there’s the women’s team, which stands as one of the few squads with a chance to collar UConn and possesses its own legit star in center Courtney Paris. She magnanimously promised to pay back her scholarship if the Sooners don’t win the national title.

Not a single other school whose team finished the season in the top 20 has a football team that played in a BCS Bowl this past season (OU lost to Florida in the BCS title game; Gator basketball this season was a no-show). And certianly none of them would ever dare call themselves a football school.

Among the men’s Sweet 16, several schools have had decent football teams, but none live and breathe the sport like we do.

This isn’t OU’s first foray into the hoops near-elite. In the 80s, Wayman Tisdale once gave us a reason to don our red. And though it might be hard to recall given recent events, Kelvin Sampson stoked the first fires for Sooner hoops, guiding team to eight consecutive 20-win seasons, 10 NCAA tournaments and a trip to the Final Four (2002) from the mid-90s into just a few seasons ago.

But under vibrant new leadership (head coach Jeff Capel, and his counterpart, women’s coach Sherri Coale), and with Griffin and Paris showcasing Norman as a viable place for the region’s best talent, this team might actually succeed where their predecessors could not – stir Sooner nation for another season.

And I’m sure Bud Wilkinson wouldn’t mind a bit.

Was Jay Bilas Suddenly Billy Packer II?

The big dogs will still bark. Many of college basketball’s best teams, the ones that will surely crowd into everyone’s Final Four, are still my favorites despite losing in their conference tournaments, some of the early in the week. In fact, they might even be better off than teams that survived the annual pre-postseason gauntlets.

Of course, that view makes me irrelevant and, well, stupid, according to ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. In an article in Sunday’s New York Times, Bilas, who holds the contrary view on the value of winning conference tournaments, dismissed anyone who disagreed with him on this as if they were not worthy of breathing the same air.

“The people who say these things are not important,” he said, “and that losing early is a good thing are idiots.”

Well, there you have it. Agree with me or whither away, scum.

C’mon, Jay. As your ESPN colleague Mark Jackson would certainly say: You’re better than that.

Or you should be.

Right now, it seems Bilas has stepped square into the void left by the departure of Billy Packer, the opinionated, ascerbic and dismissive analyst who resorts to putdowns in debates rather than reasoned arguments.

Saying someone is “not important” or an “idiot” just because they disagree with you, especially over something as subjective as the value of conference tournaments,  smacks of desperation, the type of language used when you don’t have anything smart to say.

And Jay Bilas is a very smart guy.

The reason few mourned Packer’s departure is that he’d worn on us. His constant putdown of mid-majors found less and less support with each “upset” that came to mark March Madness. By the time he was replaced by Greg Anthony, who’s more reasoned and analytical (now there’s a radical approach for an analyst), Packer was about the only college hoops fan in the nation who didn’t appreciate the Little Programs That Could (and Often Did).

Now here comes Bilas on blast. Or Packer, the Remix? Billy Deux?

Bilas can offer asute perspectives, but only if we hear them. When they’re not overwhelmed by bombast and bravado, which can happen when any of us covers the same sport, breathes the same air, season after season.

In the same article, Bilas said: “I’m not sure that aside from North Carolina we have a super great team this year.”

In a season when there was a different No. 1 at every commercial break, was there really any “super great team?”

On Sunday’s post-selection show, Bilas pummelled Dick Vitale as if he was Larry Holmes and Dickie V was an aging Ali. You’d have thought they were debating the AIG bonus plan, not whether Arizona deserved a spot in the Dance.

Bilas said they did; Vitale said they did not.

By the way, the Wildcats didn’t deserve a bid. Of course, my idiot opinion is just not important.

Photos: ESPN/New York Daily News

Sparring over No. 1 Seeds is Madness

Blake Griffin isn't alone in thinking his team is The 1

Blake Griffin isn't alone in thinking his team is The 1

The madness has already begun. Unfortunately. Specifically, the insipid debate over which teams will secure No. 1 seeds for the 2009 NCAA tournament.

My umbrage is not over who gets the seeds. Not at all. After a season in which the overall top ranking was treated like a potato just out of the microwave, five teams, maybe six, can lay claim to being one of the top four teams in the nation and deserving of a No. 1 seed: Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Connecticut, Oklahoma and Memphis. Even Louisville, having beaten Pitt in their only meeting, can make a why-not-us? claim (though the Pitt win should be trumped by last month’s loss to underachieving Notre Dame, which probably won’t qualify for the 65-team field)

No, I’m annoyed because the debate over who gets the top seeds is the most nonsensical debate in sports. In truth, it’s irrelevant whether a team gets and No. 1, 2 or 3 seed.

It’s irrelevant because it doesn’t give the top seeds much more than the right to say they’re a No. 1 seed (“It’s a badge of honor,” says one college administrator). Well, combined with a buck, the top seeding won’t get you much more than a share of Citibank stock.

Generally, the selection committee tries to minimize travel for all teams, with priority given to higher-seeded teams. Yet no team is allowed to play on a “home court,” which means any arena where the team has played four times during the regular season.

Thus, should Pitt land the East’s top seed, it’ll play the opening two rounds at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, offering Panther fans a simple journey to the site. Same for Tar Heel fans should UNC be dubbed No. 1 in the South region, with its first games at Greensboro.

But, heck, Pitt and UNC should beat whomever they play in those opening rounds – teams seeded 16th and, at best, 9th – even if they had to play them in the other teams’ jock dorms.

That’s one reason the tournament is known for its stirring upsets. The lack of a home-court edge buoys teams that look overmatched and underwhelming on paper.

Thus, the madness.

Once teams reach the regionals, then any geographic edge is all but a non-factor. And in Detroit, site of the Final Four, none of the potential top teams has an edge.

In others sports “seedings” are typically earned (based on record) and meaningful because it awards a team the home court/field edge, which can be the difference-maker in a deciding game.

In the NCAA tournament, the verbal sparring over the top seeds is little more than simply maddening.

Sports Needs an Economic Attitude Adjustment

Great coach. But maybe a bit out of touch.

Great coach. But maybe a bit out of touch.

It’s getting ugly out there.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says he’ll slash his pay package by as much as 25 percent in order to save a few jobs. However, he can’t save them all. Anonymous team employees throughout sports are being sliced with the same sickle that has eliminated millions of jobs across America since last fall. NBA owners are divvying up $200 million in loans to cover millions in shortfalls due to diminishing ticket buyers and vanishing sponsors.

Every sport, maybe for the first time ever, is feeling the same economic pinch as the fans.

Pretty soon, NASCAR teams may consider carpooling.

And yet: Albert Haynesworth gets $100 million from Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, Manny Ramirez snub $45 million like it’s s stick insult before coming to his senses this week – and Jim Calhoun (pictured) just doesn’t get it.

Ugly.

The relationship between sports and fans has long been tenuous – not coincidentally, as salaries have risen to Wall Street CEOesque levels. That’s especially true among fans of a generation when their own paychecks carried pretty much the same digits as the men (and, yes, they were mostly men then, too) they cheered. Superstars always made superstar money, but there was a time when the working-stiff jock actually made near working-stiff wages.

So did most coaches – guys who chose the profession for the love of their sport more than the love of money.

Not anymore. Sports has created a new, young class of fast-twitch millionaires: guys who won the gene pool lottery and, in most instances, applied diligence, discipline and plain old hard work to their physical gifts and reached the highest level of their sport. And on the sidelines, pro coaches can afford to live next door to their superstars. In college, many make more than all but their elite players ever will.

I don’t begrudge any of them. I’ve always chuckled at the petty grumblings of folks who rail against them for one sin (“They’re not as good as their predecessors.”) or another (“They don’t hustle.”) when what they really mean is: They make too much damn money.

I typically chalk up their rants to ignorance and jealousy, and move on.

But now it could get uglier than a few rants. As more Americans are stripped of their livelihoods each day, sports is being given less of a pass.

Calhoun was asked at a postgame press conference to comment on his $1.6 million annual base salary at UConn, which makes him one of the highest-paid state employees at a time when Connecticut is facing a reported $944 million budget deficit that is projected to be $8 billion in two years.

His snippy response – “My advice to you is, shut up,” followed by a rift on how much money the Huskies generate for the university – has been polarizing. Governor M. Jodi Rell called it “embarrassing,” and the leaders of the state’s General Assembly want Calhoun to be reprimanded by the university. Conversely, many have defended the coach’s reaction, saying his success through the years more than justifies his compensation – even in these trying times.

Calhoun could have been more mature in his response, even if he has the data to back his argument. As it stands, he’s come off as the newest poster boy for the excesses of sports and showed how out of touch he is with Joe Taxpayer.

And it’s more than an isolated tempest. Attendance will likely be unaffected in Storrs, but loyal ticket-buyers elsewhere are deciding they can no longer afford to see their favorite team live or buy that $100 jersey; or they simply no longer have the desire to go see athletes and coaches who don’t seem to feel their pain.

As they grow weary of the kind of “not-my-economic problem” attitude displayed by Calhoun, Ramirez and others, sports may lose its status as The Great Escape. More fans may no longer see sports as a respite from the woes of their lives.

If sports can no longer serve that purpose, then what’s its purpose?

That’s a question no one wants to answer.

Reuters photograph

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