William Friday, the former North Carolina president, recalls being yanked from one Knight Commission meeting and sworn to secrecy about what might happen if a certain team made the NCAA championship basketball game. “They were going to dress and go out on the floor,” Friday told me, “but refuse to play,” in a wildcat student strike. Skeptics doubted such a diabolical plot. These were college kids—unlikely to second-guess their coaches, let alone forfeit the dream of a championship. Still, it was unnerving to contemplate what hung on the consent of a few young volunteers: several hundred million dollars in television revenue, countless livelihoods, the NCAA budget, and subsidies for sports at more than 1,000 schools. Friday’s informants exhaled when the suspect team lost before the finals.
In 1991, the UNLV Running Rebels were in a preposterous position. They were the defending NCAA champions, and they came into the tournament undefeated. They also came into the tournament knowing that a thousand-pound dunghammer was being held over their heads by the NCAA, which nonetheless allowed the Rebels to play out the season and that year's tournament. (Which, in itself, pretty much proves a lot of what Branch says about the legitimacy of the NCAA as a governing body.) Among their players was Greg Anthony, an extremely popular and outspoken point guard who'd already been knuckled by the NCAA when it cracked down on him for a T-shirt venture Anthony had launched. (Anthony is now an college-basketball analyst for CBS, where it is very unlikely he ever will be asked about this.) If ever a team was likely to feel fed up enough with the NCAA to do something like this, it was that UNLV team.
In addition, Branch says that Friday learned of the possible job action while a member of the Knight Commission, which issued its first report in 1991. In addition, UNLV indeed did "lose before the final," being eliminated by Duke in the semifinals in a game featuring a whole bunch of curiosities in its final few minutes.