They were happy to answer questions about what it’s like playing college hoops at powerhouse UConn — “Anywhere you go around campus, they know who we are” — what it’s like being honored at the White House — “It’s special to be here” — and whether skills learned as a college athlete will serve them later in other careers — “Definitely.”
Yet players including Stefanie Dolson, Bria Hartley and men’s star Shabazz Napier shrunk from the microphones when a reporter asked their feelings about NCAA athlete unionization. Their coaches, Kevin Ollie for the men and Geno Auriemma, the women’s coach who’s rarely at a loss for words, looked at their shoes too and waited for the next query.
The teams were at the White House today for a rare joint celebration of men’s and women’s basketball championships. It was only the second time both champions were from the same school. The last time it happened was in 2004 when UConn’s teams also won the same year.
The women were favored to win after an undefeated regular season and coasted to victory 79-58 over also-undefeated Notre Dame. It was their ninth national title and fifth undefeated season. The win made Auriemma the coach with the most women’s college basketball titles.
The men’s victory was a different story. It’s hard to call any UConn men’s basketball team a Cinderella story, but they were the second-worst ranked team to win a championship since the NCAA tournament began seeding schools in 1979.
Ollie, who took over in 2012 from the legendary Jim Calhoun, last month signed a new five-year $15 million contract that doesn’t require his players to meet minimum academic standards for him to get a bonus for their wins.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, appearing earlier today in the White House briefing room, wasn’t afraid to step into political territory when it comes to college sports.
“Coaches’ contracts, the overwhelming majority of the incentives are tied to wins and losses,” Duncan told reporters. “Very little is tied to academic performance. So the structure of this is backwards. And we’d love to see more coaches contracts to get any bonus, their student-athletes would have to meet a minimum academic success level.”