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The end of the innocence as UConn women's basketball goes corporate

What a country. Purple mountain majesties, amber waves of grain ... and an 18-year-old with exactly 30 career points and more turnovers than assists who belongs to corporate America now.

This is the story of UConn freshman (and professional businessperson) Azzi Fudd, who will join Steph Curry in his SC30 Inc. brand, "a unique, wide-ranging partnership that will support her successes both on and off the court as the nation's top recruit builds her collegiate career — a multi-dimensional name, image and likeness contract."

The Associated Press story went on to trumpet the partnership as entailing "far more than strictly a sponsorship deal." Curry will "personally mentor" Fudd as she "balances school, basketball and the demands of being a face for female athletes." Curry wants to help Fudd "show the world who she is through not only her personality and passions but by also providing a platform and financial backing to share her values and ideas."

A more cynical fellow might pine for the days when college actually developed and honed one's values and ideas. Turns out the youngins come fully equipped now. Who knew?

Fudd joins teammate Paige Bueckers, who recently became Gatorade's first female NCAA athlete partner, joining Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Abby Wambach, Elena Delle Donne, Candace Parker, Zion Williamson and Jayson Tatum.

Now for my favorite paragraph: "To announce the deal, Bueckers was photographed wearing a Gatorade logo varsity jacket, paired with a Gatorade collaboration edition of the Air Jordan 1 Retro High. The 'Lemon Lime' themed colorway was part of a four-shoe pack released in recent years that celebrated Michael Jordan's iconic 'Be Like Mike' campaign from the early 1990s."

Bueckers, who appears to have more corporate ties now than Budweiser, recently announced her first multiyear endorsement deal with sneaker marketplace StockX.

It's over, folks. There is no more innocence around UConn women's basketball. The erstwhile girls next door moved to Hollywood. The dramatis personae have gone corporate. Business suits — or perhaps the Gatorade collaboration edition of the Air Jordan 1 Retro Highs — have replaced the bobbing, blond ponytails conquering all those heathens from Tennessee.

And what of the fans, some perhaps with enough naiveté to think they can still drink the Kool-Aid with both hands? For many years, the UConn women were their girls. The hardwood Von Trapps who don't belch, swear, party, cut class or do any other things college kids do.

No longer. The two best players have gone corporate. The end of the innocence. The grandeur of it all is almost biblical. Which is where we begin for Fudd and Bueckers. Luke 12:48: "To whom much is given, much will be required."

Fudd and Bueckers have capitalized on new, overdue NCAA rules under which college athletes may monetize their name, image, and likeness (NIL) and turn their accomplishments into cash. In many ways, we should laud Fudd and Bueckers as pioneers.

It's just that their newfound acclaim brings different layers of consequences. Applaud them for getting what they can. But the time required to fulfill corporate responsibilities might call into question their commitment to winning the national championship — the very standard that built the UConn women into the single greatest college athletic program in our country's history.

No other program has ever won more and done it better than Geno Auriemma and Chris Dailey. Nobody. They retired the trophy. And maybe going corporate is part of some necessary evolution. I just wonder how interested Bueckers and Fudd will be in listening to their coaches and professors when they've got one foot in Storrs and another wearing Air Jordan 1 Retro Highs.

Here is what Fudd and Bueckers should expect: Next month, the Huskies head south to play presumptive No. 1 South Carolina. Fudd and Bueckers better be Pippen and Jordan leading UConn to victory. Otherwise, all the slings, darts and arrows that come with corporate connections interfering with basketball are fair questions.

And they will be asked.

And don't anybody dare dismiss the questions as inappropriate for innocent college kids. That's because they're not innocent college kids anymore. Their choice.

Such questions will be entirely appropriate for male athletes, too, when and if they take similar corporate paths.

NCAA athletes would be wise to save their corporate transactions for the offseason. I know. Too utopian to be practical. Meantime, two of the most heralded recruits in UConn women's history have ended their program's innocence. They better start playing a whole lot better, too, lest the Gatorade start tasting a little sour.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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