Behold the spectacle of the NCAA tournament, the glory of the 15s beating the 2s, the heartwarming sight of the president of Ohio University giving a locker-room victory speech, the dual redemption stories of Cincinnati and Xavier.
As you do, you might have a vague awareness, deep down, that the entire enterprise is fueled by a swift undercurrent of hypocrisy and unfairness, but you're OK with that. As long as it doesn't interfere with anybody's rooting interests or the ability to brag about or bemoan our brackets, everything's cool. It's a healthy diversion.
So maybe this isn't the best time to consider the story of Kansas State senior forward Jamar Samuels, especially since K-State is finished and the Sweet 16 awaits. But of all the examples of alleged misconduct that have come and gone, even including the NCAA's public soiling of UConn's Ryan Boatwright earlier this season, Samuels' story deserves to be heard.
Samuels was suspended for Saturday's game against Syracuse by his university's athletic director -- presumably as a pre-emptive strike -- for taking $200 from his old AAU coach. The coach freely admits giving him the money, for one reason: Samuels needed it for food, and he reached out and asked for the coach's help. "If I wanted to hide it, I would have done it differently," Curtis Malone told Austin Meek of the Topeka Capital-Journal. "He needed money to eat."
Nobody is debating the rules here. By NCAA law, it was a violation. Samuels undoubtedly knew it, and Malone should have, too. The story would be much cleaner if it wasn't an AAU coach, especially one who is no stranger to controversy. But it shouldn't cloud the facts in evidence: Samuels asked for money, Malone wired him $200, Samuels was suspended.
Of course, there's no appeals process for Jamar Samuels. He's 22 years old, an adult by every legal definition, and yet he has no rights when it comes to challenging or even explaining an NCAA ruling that put him on national television as some sort of criminal. Samuels' integrity was allowed to float around at the whim of your imagination. During the telecast of the Kansas State-Syracuse game, no one knew the transgression that caused his suspension. There was no explanation except to say it wasn't academic and there was no incident that took place while the Wildcats were in Pittsburgh for the regional.
Other than that, speculate to your heart's content.
It would have been instructive for Samuels -- at the behest of a parent, or a lawyer, or Kansas State itself -- to get in front of the microphones and explain his situation. Imagine that, a young man thrown onto the pyre of ridiculous rules standing up and explaining his situation. He could have explained how a scholarship, even a full scholarship, doesn't fill all the crevasses in a college student's life. (As the parent of two college students, I know most of them.) He could have shed light on his family's situation, and how there's just nothing there if he runs out of money. He could have brought everyone up to date on the reasons he turned to his old AAU coach for a small amount of help.
He could have explained how much different things would be if he came from a wealthy family, or even a middle-class one. If he had family members with a few extra bucks to send his way -- and Malone was quick to point out that Samuels doesn't -- he wouldn't have been sitting there watching his teammates play. You can give your college-athlete kid -- full scholarship or not -- as much money as you want, but what if you don't have any to give? It isn't hard to find wealthy parents who celebrate the full athletic or academic scholarships of their offspring with gifts of expensive cars. Nothing wrong with that. It just doesn't appear to be Samuels' world.
Why couldn't we hear from Samuels? K-State coach Frank Martin didn't respond to an interview request through the school's sports information office, but we already know the answer: We didn't hear from Samuels because it doesn't fit the NCAA's narrative for him to have a voice in the process. It might cause people to look up from their brackets and question the integrity of an enterprise that brings wild financial benefits to everyone but the talent. They might look at Jamar Samuels and see him as one of thousands who help their coaches make a small fortune, their schools millions and the NCAA billions ($10.8 billion in TV money alone) while they risk being publicly humiliated without explanation for receiving $200. They might take a closer look at a system that tells the players the brand of shoes and gear to wear because their coach and athletic department made a deal to sell off parts of their bodies in exchange for another chunk of change.
So I ask: Is this what you sign up for when you accept an athletic scholarship? I don't know Samuels and I don't know Malone, but I think it would be hard for a guy who has a few stray bucks in his pocket to refuse to help someone who comes to him saying he needs to eat.
Is there a chance someone could find room for a small dose of sanity? Reason? Just a little room, maybe, so a young man doesn't have to sit there on national television having everyone thinking he's a criminal when his offense was taking $200 from what amounts to a family friend?
Judging from Malone's account, Samuels' family is like many whose sons compete in the biggest-money sports: They don't have much. And no matter how many lovable shots we're shown of moms and dads in the stands, there are hundreds who are watching from home because they can't afford either the travel costs or the time off work. Judging from the empty seats over the weekend, the tournament has become a strictly made-for-TV event.
In the middle of all this, a former coach who has a few bucks in his pocket helps out a former player when he needs it. It's probably worth mentioning that the AAU coach's money likely comes from sources that are probably not much different from those that line the pockets of an NCAA coach -- shoe and apparel companies, maybe even college boosters with an interest in having players steered their way. A cynic might suggest a guy like Samuels is good for Malone's business, so he helps him out when he needs it.
The system is rigged against poor people. Simple as that. Now, I know what's coming. I know many of you are going to say that Jamar Samuels is getting a free education in exchange for his basketball talents, and that's reward enough. You're going to say that he's free to leave anytime he wants to pursue a profession, basketball or otherwise, that pays him whatever he feels he's worth.
Is that the way we want it to be? Should a multibillion-dollar enterprise be the source of lavish benefits for everyone but the talent? Slice it any way you want, but there's nothing fair about it.
Now back to the game.