What Nate Robinson said Monday about being offered $100,000 by a booster to keep playing football instead of basketball for the University of Washington was less of a revelation and more of a tradition. And we all know how big tradition is for college football.
Huskies boosters were doing this long before Robinson’s father, UW running back Jacque Robinson, was born. Ask Hugh (The King) McElhenny.
“What they did with me was illegal,” said McElhenny, UW football’s icon of the mid-20th century. “I know it was illegal for me to receive cash, and every month I received cash. I know it was illegal to receive clothing, and I got clothing all the time from stores.
“I got a check every month, and it was never signed by the same person, so we never really knew who it was coming from. They invested in me every year. Peg and I made more in college than I made in pro ball.
“When I look back, it was funny.”
McElhenny, a member of the college and pro football halls of fame, told the truth to Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Dan Raley in a 2004 story.
One of the longest-running jokes in Seattle sports was that McElhenny, the ninth pick in the first round of the 1952 NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers, took a pay cut to go pro. Turned out, it wasn’t a joke. His first year salary was $7,000, and he and his wife, Peggy, pulled in about $10,000 a year in Seattle.
A slush fund for years put money in the pockets of Huskies football stars, a story that made the cover of Sports Illustrated. It took awhile, but the NCAA finally caught up to the evasion by Huskies boosters of rules on impermissible benefits.
The fund, laundered from Greater Seattle Inc. into the coffers of the Washington Advertising Association, another downtown booster group, resulted in a probation for all UW sports in 1957 and 1958.
Fast forward to Wednesday, when, in his Holdat podcast hosted by Sports Illustrated with another retired NBA veteran, Carlos Boozer, Robinson explained that the tradition of seeking to violate the standards of amateurism at Montlake — and nearly every other big-time college-sports institution — continues.
He said a booster he didn’t identify offered him $100,000 a year to leave the basketball court and return to the gridiron, where he started six games as a freshman cornerback in 2002 under coach Rick Neuheisel.
But unlike McElhenny, Robinson, a Rainier Beach High School grad who played for eight teams in a wild NBA career that ran from 2005-16, declined the offer, fearing the hold the booster may have held over him.
From the podcast:
“When they fired Rick Neuheisel my freshman year, that made it easy for me to make my decision to quit and go play basketball, which I wanted to do anyway,” Robinson said. “For my three years at UW, I had a booster offer me $100,000 per year to come back and play football because they needed Nate Robinson back on the football field, because we weren’t winning any games. It wasn’t exciting.
“A booster came to me, my mom sat down and my mom was like, ‘That’s a lot of money.’ And she was looking at me like, ‘What you want to do?’ And I was like, ‘I want to hoop, I don’t want to take money from a booster and not knowing if this handshake is for us to keep this money, because people don’t do nothing for free.’
“And that’s what my mom taught me: What do I owe you after this? My mom was just like, ‘What do you want to do? It’s up you. This is your life, not mine.’ I told my mom I was going to have to kindly say no thank you, but my dream is to play basketball and earn everything that I got.
“The grind of putting in the passion and showing how great I can be, because I was never a money guy. I didn’t care. I’ll play for free. I just want to hoop, I don’t care. For me, it was like I want to see where my path will go from doing the right thing instead of just taking what’s convenient now, when I know in the long run I don’t want to owe anybody anything.”
Robinson’s reluctance to incur a debt, not any noble notion about amateurism, appeared to drive his decision. And in the highly likely event that there are no documents, recordings or confessions to back his claim, nothing will come from Robinson’s titillating little disclosure.
But it does add another small log to the fire building at the NCAA’s feet, sparked anew with the current FBI investigation into men’s college basketball. The latest allegation from media reports of the FBI’s evidence implicates Arizona coach Sean Miller in a $100,000 offer to induce star Deandre Ayton to come to Tucson.
Miller has denied wrongdoing, but agreed to not coach Saturday’s game in Eugene, where the Pac-12 Conference-leading Wildcats lost to the Ducks in overtime. Miller and more than 20 other prominent coaches and programs were implicated in a story by Yahoo! Sports Friday that documented numerous episodes of cash payments that violated NCAA rules against extra benefits for athletes.
What the McElhenny episode from 70 years ago, and the Robinson episode from 15 years ago, and the current FBI investigation that has resulted in 10 arrests for felony bribery and fraud, tell us is that the world outside of the NCAA’s rules bubble has no moral problem with puncturing the bubble.
It makes no sense in a capitalist society to deny compensation for the labor of workers. The boosters, the shoe companies and the coaches aren’t pushing black-tar heroin on these kids. They’re trying to give them dollars the market says they’ve earned.
Amateurism is a phony construct. But because so many have become so wealthy for so long off the system, the NCAA’s commitment to amateurism has been reform-proof. The only hope is that the federal probe leads to successful prosecutions, which lead to jail time for multiple perps.
Which might lead to the end of the longest-running tradition in college sports.
Art Thiel is co-founder at sportspressnw.com.