American professional athletics are no stranger to scandal and crime, but some people might be surprised by just how colorful the history of our college-level athletic programs often turns out to be. On close inspection, there is a sordid underlying layer of price fixing, academic fraud, and the occasional crime of such severity as to forever crush an otherwise promising young athlete’s career. Here are the five most controversial athletes in the history of American college basketball, along with a summary of the circumstances surrounding their actions. Each individual is known either for the severity of the crimes he committed, or — as is too often the case in academic fraud — the complete lack of any real accountability.
The controversy surrounding high school basketball star Derrick Rose involved his academic performance. Chicago-raised Rose failed his ACT exam a total of three times in Chicago, before a passing score was recorded for his SATs. As if that weren’t sketchy enough, Rose — along with two other classmates — had his grades temporarily altered by his school, over a period of time coinciding with the submission of his transcript to the colleges of his choice. He wound up at the University of Memphis, then — in the figurative blink of an eye — he was the #1 NBA draft pick, thanks to an incredible tournament performance. An NCAA investigation into Memphis concluded too late to stop a multi-million-dollar professional contract for Rose, and the college itself got a slap on the wrist.
John “Hot Rod” Williams was the star attraction at Tulane University in New Orleans. As a junior, he won the Metro Conference player of the year award after averaging 16 points and 7 rebounds throughout his college career. However, by the end of his senior season, he was under arrest for point fixing, as part of a plot involving himself, four teammates and three other students at Tulane. For a total of $8,550, he manipulated spreads in the three final games of his college career. When it was found that Tulane’s own coach was making illegal payments, the college shut down its basketball program for five years. Williams went on to become the second highest-paid athlete in American professional sports; he was the first NBA player to make more than $5 million in a single season.
Before Derrick Rose, there was Eric Manuel. In the 1980s, Manuel drew attention when he similarly failed the ACT test several times in his Macon, Georgia hometown, before retaking and passing the same test at a high school in Lexington, Kentucky. While playing for the SEC All-Freshman team, he fell under an investigation by the NCAA into the Kentucky program. It was discovered that he and a student sitting adjacent to him during his successful ACT examination shared 211 out of 219 answers on the test, including both correct and incorrect responses. He was found ineligible to play for the University of Kentucky, but a district court judge later allowed him to play for Oklahoma City University. He led his new alma mater to a pair of NAIA titles, before playing professional basketball overseas for several seasons.
In 1951, Long Island University’s Sherman White was Sporting News’ national player of the year. The day after this was announced, White was under arrest, as part of a point shaving scandal involving students and faculty at seven different universities across the country (this was an early scandal for the University of Kentucky’s mens basketball program). White was initiatlly confused at the point shaving practices of some of his teammates, but he joined in for a payment just in excess of $5,500, which he turned in at the time of his arrest. During the season for which he had been proclaimed player of the year, he was a full participant in the scheme, which had been concocted by jeweler Salvatore Sollazzo. White was subsequently banned from the NBA, missing out on a $13,000 contract with the New York Knicks, but after serving time (one of two players to do so) he played in the semi-pro Eastern League.
The world of college basketball is accustomed to scandal, price fixing, and academic fraud. Less common, however, is the commission of much more serious crimes. Baylor University forward Carlton Dotson was practicing with firearms on a farm north of Waco, with fellow teammate Patrick Dennehy. After one such practice session, the two got into an argument, and Dotson shot and killed his teammate. He ws arrested after confessing to the crime a month later. Dennehy’s truck was found at a shopping mall with its plates removed; when his body was found, four days after Dotson’s confession, it was minus Dennehy’s head. Making things even worse, head coach Dave Bliss had been paying Dotson and Dennehy’s tuition to get past scholarship limits; when asked where the money had come from, he painted the deceased Dennehy as a drug dealer.
These highly controversial high school and college basketball stars all had potentially promising careers ahead of them in professional sports. As is the case with many other controversial athletes, some of them made it, while others saw their chances at the high life ruined by short-sighted (and occasionally brutal) decisions. The only thing not tarnished by these events, overall, is America’s continuing love for the game, as collegiate basketball is one of the most popular athletic programs in America today.