The year the real world came for college basketball
Alabama, currently ranked second in the country, had one of its players, Darius Miles, charged with capital murder after a single mother was killed in a shootout in the student bar district of Tuscaloosa in January.
Two of his teammates were present at the shooting, with police alleging that both parked their cars in a manner that might've blocked the victim’s vehicle with at least one path out of a narrow street where the conflict occurred.
One of the Tide players, Brandon Miller, is a national player of the year candidate, potential NBA lottery pick and breakout star of the season. Police allege that he drove to the scene with a gun at the request of Miles, who retrieved his gun from Miller's car. It soon became a weapon used in a killing, as Miles' friend indiscriminately shot up the night.
Miller so far has not faced even team discipline, let alone any legal charges. His coach, Nate Oats, callously dismissed his role as being in the “wrong spot at the wrong time.”
Texas, currently ranked eighth in the country, had its head coach, Chris Beard, suspended and then fired after he was charged with felony assault against a family member for strangulation after a domestic incident in December. His fiancée later retracted the allegations, and all charges have been dropped by local prosecutors, but Beard's career and the fate of the Longhorns are still uncertain.
New Mexico State, an NCAA tournament darling just a season ago, suspended its entire program and fired head coach Greg Heiar following allegations of widespread hazing within the team.
This followed a November incident in which New Mexico State player Mike Peake shot and killed a University of New Mexico student the night before an Aggies road game in Albuquerque. Peake was also shot in the leg and has not been charged with a crime, likely because this was deemed an act of self-defense after he was lured to campus for a possible fight.
Michigan State, one of the sport’s flagship programs, is trying to pick up the pieces after a gunman murdered three students and wounded five others in a mass shooting on campus last week. On Tuesday, the Spartans won an inspiring yet heart-wrenching game against Indiana that left Hall of Fame head coach Tom Izzo, not to mention thousands of fans, in tears, overcome with grief and emotion.
This is the year the real world came for college basketball.
Deaths. Murders. Guns. Violence. Legal proceedings. The decisions of prosecutors being debated as often as a point guard’s. The sport has always been a colorful kaleidoscope, complete with endless scandals, rivalries and controversies.
After all, just a few years back, 10 men associated with the sport were arrested following an FBI pay-for-play investigation. One of them, Christian Dawkins, still sits in federal prison, even though almost everything he was accused of is now allowed by the NCAA.
Yet this is way more than that. Way more tragic. Way more serious. Way more sad.
Way more real.
The incidents are unrelated and complicated in their own right. They are coincidental, not crossovers. There is no trend here, just the problems of modern society, modern America crashing over the sea wall of what is supposed to be a fun and frivolous distraction.
March Madness. Cameron Crazies. The Octagon of Doom.
Terms such as those all seemed so innocent. Now it’s just madness, crazies and doom.
The sport is vast, of course — 352 different teams in Division I alone. It’s uniquely American, a wonderful hodgepodge of institutions competing for a single national title in a game invented domestically. Big state schools and small private ones. City colleges and land grant institutions. Military academies and church-sponsored ones.
So maybe it’s no surprise that what plagues the real world would seep into college basketball. It just seems to be coming faster and more furiously now.
The storylines for a Texas team trying to reach the Final Four will harken back to Beard and domestic violence.
For Michigan State trying to make another run to the tourney, the horrors of a mass shooting will hover over everything.
At Alabama, who knows? It might be a national championship with the star player being known for ferrying a firearm to a shootout and a coach who didn’t seem to care about it clipping a net.
It’s darkness overshadowing the joy, serious issues impacting sport.
That isn’t what this is supposed to be, but that is what this college basketball season has become. It’s ugly. It’s depressing. It’s infuriating.
And who knows what might still be to come.