Alyssa Beckerman recently became the latest gymnast to join the #GymnastAlliance movement and the first to do so against Miss Val. For many fans allegations against Miss Val is something they have been waiting to see surface for years. With Beckerman’s revelations comes a resurfacing of many of the “warning signs” that some felt were always there.
I’m not going to repeat the more prominent issues that are being discussed, but to highlight something that virtually no one talked about. It is something that directly contradicts Miss Val’s own anti-Karolyi rhetoric and an issue that even during the height of her popularity and before Beckerman’s revelations, the one thing that bothered me most. And that is her consistent praise, promotion, and constant idolization of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.
This is not an issue that only Miss Val is guilty of. An overwhelming majority of UCLA fans who follow the school year round and not just gymnastics have the exact same mindset. For those who don’t know, John Wooden won ten NCAA titles as UCLA’s basketball head coach. For comparison the second most decorate coach is Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski at five titles.
If the UCLA community holds John Wooden in high regard, to a lesser extent the wider basketball community does the same. Every year the best player in college basketball receives the Wooden Award while the best coach in the Pac-12 also receives an award named for Wooden. In spite of these honors, among the basketball blogosphere and while reading basketball forums, when the UCLA basketball dynasty is discussed fans are quick to undercut its legacy. As some see it, UCLA basketball under Wooden was one of the dirtiest programs to have ever existed and had the rules been enforced, it would have had many of its titles vacated.
The controversy stems from Sam Gilbert, a passionate UCLA fan whose support for the program extended to bestowing gifts on its basketball players in direct violation of NCAA rules. It doesn’t matter whether you are for or against rules preventing players receiving these gifts. Every program is held to the NCAA rulebook and these rules must be abided by. UCLA’s crosstown rival USC lost both a Heisman Trophy and a football title over a similar issue regarding their players receiving improper gifts.
Gilbert had massive clout over the program and was even nicknamed “Papa Sam.” Excerpts from media coverage of the story reveal both the extent to which Papa Sam was influencing the program and how much Wooden was turning a blind eye to the whole affair.
The Times established that Gilbert, during Wooden’s heyday, helped players get cars, clothes, airline tickets and scalpers’ prices for UCLA season tickets. Gilbert allegedly even arranged abortions for players’ girlfriends.
One former UCLA All-American told The Times: “What do you want me to say? That’s my school. I don’t want to see them take away all those championships.”
“There were two people I listened to,” former UCLA star Lucius Allen once told The Times. “Coach Wooden as long as we were between the lines. Outside the court — Sam Gilbert.”
” . . . Wooden knew about Gilbert. He knew the players were close to Gilbert. He knew they looked to Gilbert for advice. Maybe he knew more. He should have known much more. If he didn’t, it was only because he apparently chose not to look.”
What makes this scandal noteworthy and why some basketball fans feel it was a historical error that UCLA was never penalized for Papa Sam during the Wooden era, it is not that UCLA basketball successfully avoided NCAA investigators, but the allegation persists that NCAA investigators avoided UCLA basketball. In an NPR interview with Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports who wrote a book on Wooden, it features a comment from the host:
“…the NCAA went out of its way – it seems, according to your account – to make sure that they only dealt with events after John Wooden’s period as the coach.”
But the most damaging evidence of it goes all the way back to when the story first broke in the 1980s and the Los Angeles Times quoting Brent Clark. It seemed UCLA was too iconic of a program for the NCAA to target.
The paper quoted Brent Clark, an NCAA field investigator who said that, in 1977, he was told to drop his case in Westwood. “If I had spent a month in Los Angeles, I could have put them on indefinite suspension,” he said of UCLA.
The NCAA did eventually sanction UCLA over Sam Gilbert. But only after Wooden retired and only for infractions that post-dated Wooden’s tenure. While many readers might sympathize with student-athletes who are not allowed to receive gifts, people should think twice about the figures such as Papa Sam who get involved with student athletes in illicit fashion.
For starters, these people aren’t interested in protecting the well-being of student athletes as they are risking their NCAA eligibility which in turn risks their athletic careers and/or their ability to complete their academic degree. These shady figures are less concerned about the well being of the program and more concerned for their personal self-indulgence by being able to personally interact with the athletes they admire. More importantly, these types of characters posses a general lack of respect for rules and if they are willing to act so loosely with money it raises questions about the origins of their wealth.
It is a story told time and time again in NCAA history that the shady figures who had illicit contact with student-athletes were also involved in criminal activity. Papa Sam and UCLA basketball is one of those examples. In a profile of Seth Davis’ book on Wooden, it goes as far as to use the word “Mafia” in describing just how much UCLA administrators had concerns over Sam Gilbert’s background.
If the NCAA didn’t prosecute UCLA basketball until it was too late to do anything about Wooden, the same can be said for how the Justice Department handled Sam Gilbert. He was formally indicted for conspiracy, racketeering, and money laundering. The court system was unaware he had died a few days beforehand at the time of the indictment.
The resulting case would reveal Papa Sam had ordered his son to hand deliver a bag with $1.8 million in cash inside of it that was linked to Miami drug money. It also led to the seizure of a casino worth $150 million that Papa Sam had helped finance. At the time it was the largest case of civil asset fortitude by the federal government in American history.
As gymnastics fans have sought to reexamine Miss Val, one of the posts that has been frequently shared is an excerpt from her book explaining her rules on cornrows. Besides the racial implications, the over-controlling nature of the policy, and the lack of bodily autonomy it presents, there is something else to the excerpt. Miss Val justifies her policy on the fact that John Wooden did the same.
Miss Val is no more guilty of upholding John Wooden’s legacy than any other member of the UCLA community. And given that Wooden personally served as a mentor to Miss Val, it makes logical sense for Miss Val to hold him in such high regard. Nor is this dilemma limited to UCLA. There are countless NCAA fanbases who grapple with the inconvenient stories that contradict the popular image of an iconic coach.
It is widely believed that Wooden had turned a blind eye to misconduct within his own program that was so severe, it would have led to wins and titles being vacated. And to some outsiders, UCLA basketball is seen as the most flagrant case of titles that should have been stripped but never were. This was all public knowledge by the time Miss Val came along to coach UCLA gymnastics.
UCLA fans would be absolutely correct to say Sam Gilbert doesn’t come close to negating all the good John Wooden has done. They would probably roll their eyes that the complaint of this article is Miss Val’s support for John Wooden and the basketball scandal they have heard about countless times before. And I wouldn’t blame them for that.
The purpose of this article is to educate the Gymternet on who exactly John Wooden was as gymnastics fans have almost certainly heard his name mentioned in a Miss Val blurb. It is to point out the hypocrisy that a gymnastics coach who spent the tail end of her career leading the charge against the flawed legacy of Bela and Martha Karolyi was actively promoting the legacy of another flawed coach. Miss Val used the career of Wooden as the template for her own coaching philosophy, and in some cases even justified her own actions under the guise that Wooden did the same.
But the question for readers to decide, could Miss Val’s constant promotion of Wooden and her whitewash approach towards him be seen as something that was problematic?