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Minnesota’s 1997 Final Four run was a scandal. So is college basketball.

Bobby Jackson was a star on the University of Minnesota men’s team in the 1990s. Then he became a pariah.

Bobby Jackson was a star on the University of Minnesota men’s team in the 1990s. Then he became a pariah. STAR TRIBUNE / JOHN CROFT

Bobby Jackson left the University of Minnesota in 1997, and has almost never been out of work since. After 12 years in the NBA, including some great ones with a fun Sacramento Kings team, Jackson moved into coaching, briefly working for the Minnesota Timberwolves before getting back to Sacramento.

That Jackson did all this without obtaining a college degree surprises no one. Basketball was always his focus. He excelled at the game, and seems to have enjoyed playing and now coaching as much or more than anyone. That’s obvious to anyone who recalls the big grin that often stole Bobby’s face when he or anyone made a good play. Bobby wasn’t just good at basketball. He was in love with it.

Jackson thinks of the U’s run to the 1997 Final Four, the school’s one and only trip, as a high point in his life, “something you’ll never forget,” as he told WCCO a couple years ago. This is a little ironic, since the NCAA and the University of Minnesota have tried to forget it: The collegiate association vacated those games, and the school has literally hidden (or lost track of) the Big Ten Tournament trophy that team won.

Jackson, an undersized point guard who played like a just-lit stick of dynamite, was a central if somewhat passive figure in one of the biggest academic scandals in the history of college sports. Players on that team, coached by Clem Haskins, routinely skipped classes and assignments and/or had papers written for them by a woman ostensibly hired to help them make grades. She did, but only by bending and breaking any rule possible to keep athletes eligible for as long as was needed.

This all came to light a couple years later in an explosive, Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the Pioneer Press. Jackson, then an NBA player, declined to comment about cheating his way to years as a beloved court jester and game-winner. He was depicted as a classically entitled jock, used to everything going his way and never going to class. One academic counselor said Bobby was the ultimate example of a player staying eligible but “never really getting close to a degree,” describing the whole story as “sad.”

We bet Jackson wasn’t sad. Few twentysomethings with a high-six-figure salary are. And he certainly wasn’t crying tears (of sadness, anyway) when he later made upward of $30 million in a decade-plus pro career. Bobby’s case is a rare one. You have to be both great and lucky to have that kind of career. But stories of college athletes getting favors—academic, financial, or otherwise—are a dime a dozen. The difference here: Clem Haskins’ corrupt Gophers got caught.

The length and breadth of the Gophers’ academic scandal effectively led to coach Clem Haskins receiving a lifetime ban.

The length and breadth of the Gophers’ academic scandal effectively led to coach Clem Haskins receiving a lifetime ban. Star Tribune / Jeff Wheeler

For this, Clem’s still banned from coaching college games, Minnesota spent years on probation, and Bobby Jackson’s Big Ten Player of the Year award and Final Four run were wiped from the books. Jackson was the clear standout, but at least five players went on to pro or semi-pro careers, regardless of their darkened past.

And here’s what wasn’t rescinded: the tens of millions of dollars those teams generated for the U. Jackson and his teammates, of course, weren’t allowed to receive a dime for working hard to perform in public, at times on national television, all for the purpose of raising the profile and prestige of the school.

More than two decades later, that legendarily crooked Gophers program looks adorably minor, more farce than tragedy. Since that “scandal,” several colleges have been rocked by villainous acts that put team success shelves higher than “student”-athlete behavior or public safety. If you’re not familiar, Google the weak rape investigation on Florida State’s Jameis Winston; let’s assume everyone recalls the horrifying, decades-long cover-up of a child molester’s deeds at Penn State. Hell, Baylor University had two. One was the recent web of cover-ups of football players accused of rape. Another was the mid-2000s episode where one basketball player shot and killed another, and then-coach Dave Bliss instructed teammates to frame the victim as a drug dealer.

Put those dark tales of rape and murder alongside Clem Haskins sneaking players through the academic system, and you’ll begin to wonder what the big deal was.

Or if college sports should even exist.

In Europe, South America, and pretty much everywhere else, great athletes are plucked early, recruited to sponsored club teams, and, eventually, signed to pro team youth systems. There, they focus on their chosen profession. In America, we do the same with sports like tennis, gymnastics, golf, skateboarding, racing (of all kinds), and, to a lesser extent, hockey and baseball.

Football and basketball, you get no choice. No going straight to the money-making side. First you have to be some school’s cash cow. The system is enforced in the name of athlete safety and preparedness, and “concern” for the young man’s education. Horseshit. If those sports didn’t fill stadiums and sell TV contracts, those kids would be free to dance on someone else’s dime without any professors involved.

Trading of bodies aside, the slavery metaphor doesn’t hold together when discussing highly paid athletes who belong to players unions. But college kids? Who make no money, are expected to balance elite sports and school assignments, and whose attempts at unionizing were recently spurned? Sure looks like chattel from here.

America’s scandalized by coaches and boosters bribing underprivileged athletes, who then spend years running from those events’ long shadow. We should be much more upset by recent revelations that rich kids’ parents bribed their utterly untalented offspring into top-flight schools as part of a nationwide racket. As actress Lori Laughlin turned herself in on a federal indictment for bribing her unimpressive daughter into USC, said daughter was spending the night on a yacht. A yacht owned by Rick Caruso, a billionaire California real estate mogul, and a member of the USC board of trustees.

Bobby Jackson grew up in East Spencer, a small, predominantly black North Carolina community founded by ex-slaves. Some residents still remember stories of the “hanging tree” in nearby Salisbury, where Jackson attended high school. Poverty is chronic and endemic in East Spencer, and these days, abandoned houses abound. Sounds like a tough place to grow up. If a billionaire comforted young Bobby in his hour of judgment by letting him spend the night on a yacht, that story didn’t make the Pioneer Press.

Clem Haskins and his players reunited in Minneapolis a couple years ago to mark the 20th anniversary of the most accomplished and controversial University of Minnesota team of all time. Haskins, now in his late 70s, lives on a farm in Kentucky, and told the Star Tribune seeing all his old players together “really tugs at my heart.”

Haskins visited a Gophers practice at the invitation of coach Richard Pitino, who’s got his own reasons for seeing an academic scandal as no big deal: His father, Rick Pitino, oversaw a program at Louisville that was found to be providing escort services to recruits. The elder Pitino was never proven to have direct knowledge, but was faulted for failure to prevent a prostitutes-for-prospects scheme.

Louisville’s 2012 national championship was later “vacated,” just like the victories of Bobby Jackson and the Gophers, and if you don’t see some level of unfairness in those two violations getting the exact same treatment—not to mention the wins Joe Paterno racked up at Penn State—you should check the NCAA website to see if they’re hiring.

If some large person lands on one of Virginia guard De’Andre Hunter’s fast-moving ankles before he plays a minute of NBA basketball—and receives the payday his talent merits—the basketball gods will never forgive us. (Someone please knock on the wood under the free throw line.) If a coach in this year’s Final Four is later discovered to have paid a player under the table or hired his unqualified father, go ahead, throw the book at him/them. But maybe read the book before you throw, and decide if its absurd chapters even make sense anymore.

When Pioneer Press reporter George Dohrman called Clem Haskins a couple days before the first round of the 1999 NCAA Tournament began, an exasperated (and guilty) Haskins dodged questions about his many errors in judgment. Those included signing his name to a check for $3,000 to the woman who’d written papers for his players. Eventually Clem told the reporter he was “just trying to win a game,” speaking of the first round. Minnesota immediately suspended players, lost, and Haskins hasn’t coached since.

Should he be a college basketball coach? Probably not. A more interesting question is: Should anyone?