It’s hard to praise NCAA, but punishment of Louisville was a ruling worth applauding

In this March 22, 2012, file photo, Louisville coach Rick Pitino reacts during the first half of an NCAA men's college basketball tournament West Regional semifinal against Michigan State in Phoenix on March 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)
In this March 22, 2012, file photo, Louisville coach Rick Pitino reacts during the first half of an NCAA men's college basketball tournament West Regional semifinal against Michigan State in Phoenix on March 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Matt York, File) AP

Hooray for the NCAA.

Bet you never thought you’d see that sentence.

But, infuriating as the NCAA’s decisions and decision-making processes can be, it’s worth applauding a ruling that penalizes misconduct within the Louisville basketball program. Some may deride the largely symbolic nature of Louisville’s punishment – forfeiting recognition and earnings from past achievements – but there’s no denying it stings a school and fan base with an avid pride in their basketball prowess. (One objective measure: The Louisville market has topped all others for the past 15 years in ESPN college basketball ratings.)

As important as the nature of the violations – supplying recruits with sexual favors from professional escorts and strippers – was the longstanding, well-organized nature of the practice and the denial of responsibility by Hall of Famer Rick Pitino, the man in charge. The head coach’s ignorance rang hollow in light of a detailed 2015 tell-all book written by Katina Powell, the woman who provided the “talent” to teenage boys in a campus dorm.

Revelation of that improper recruiting, orchestrated by a raunchy uncle in the guise of a graduate assistant coach, was followed last fall by news of a possible payment to a top prospect. With the school’s reputation already blemished by the sex scandal, that still-unproven charge, part of a larger federal bribery probe currently unfolding, cost the well-compensated jobs of Pitino and AD Tom Jurich.

Plea bargains

As punishment for providing sexual favors, the Cardinals were forced to vacate 123 victories from the 2012 through the 2015 seasons, including a Final Four visit and the 2013 national title, along with forfeiting an estimated $600,000 in NCAA tournament revenues. This was similar to the 101 wins and significant funds taken in 2015 from Syracuse for academic misconduct and extra player benefits under Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim.

In both instances, the schools self-punished as a form of plea bargain, but apparently to little avail. Much as former elected officials and regulators become Washington or Raleigh lobbyists trying to influence their erstwhile colleagues, these days ex-NCAA enforcers are used by schools to craft appeals. But perhaps that door is closing, North Carolina’s recent escape from punishment notwithstanding.

Louisville men's basketball coach Rick Pitino leaves Grawemeyer Hall after having a meeting with the university's interim president Greg Postel, on Sept. 27, 2017, in Louisville. Ky. Louisville announced that day that they had placed Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich on administrative leave amid a federal bribery investigation. (Michael Clevenger/The Courier-Journal via AP) Michael Clevenger AP

The severity of stripping a program of an NCAA title most recently arose when UNC’s no-show classes were a matter of spirited public debate. The Tar Heels’ escape from NCAA sanctions, to many an avoidance of responsibility, haunted the Louisville verdict. The thought of forcibly removing a championship banner from the Smith Center rafters was protested by Tar Heel faithful, but advocated by critics as an appropriate way to make penalties truly hurt.

One argument against lowering a championship banner in Chapel Hill was that it had never happened before. Well, it has now – at Louisville’s YUM! Center.

Lack of precedent for banner removal had little merit, anyway. Only the bounce of the ball allowed the NCAA to escape making that call five times prior to punishing Louisville. Championship runners-up were forced to vacate their places in the record book in 1971 (Villanova), 1980 (UCLA), 1992 and 1993 (Michigan), and 2008 (Memphis).

We’ll never know if the NCAA would have followed through if those teams emerged as champs; now that doubt has been put to rest.

Bending rules

The NCAA is rightly derided for playing favorites, for rulings that reek of racial bias, and for being overly punctilious in regulating faux amateurism at the expense of the students whose interests it supposedly exists to protect. NCAA investigations and enforcement frequently appear weak, arbitrary. Verdicts from its Committee on Infractions can be maddeningly inconsistent.

But, in a society that increasingly seems to have lost its grip on common values, the NCAA, a voluntary membership organization, does represent a collective attempt to define and honor common ground. Fair competition is touted, if not adequately demonstrated in governing the participants.

Perhaps because collegiate insiders know how often competitors get ahead by bending rules, basketball’s roster of celebrated greats rarely excludes cheats. Baseball voters continue to banish proven or suspected steroid-users from that sport’s Hall of Fame, among them Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Mark McGuire. Similar principles apparently don’t apply at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where corner-cutting is no impediment to enshrinement. A finalist for Naismith induction this year is Chris Webber, the Michigan forward who between 1988 and 1993 took about a quarter of a million dollars from a gambler associated with the Wolverine program. The list of honored coaches caught cheating during their careers is substantial.

That leaves it to the NCAA, or law enforcement, to reveal the means employed by run-of-the-mill cheaters to reach exalted stature. Knock the imperfect college infractions process all you want; it’s still more discerning than verdicts rendered by Hall of Fame voters or public opinion.

Maryland’s replacement

Speaking of opinion, it’s remarkable how little is being said about ACC leadership’s judgment in aligning with Louisville, the fourth expansion school since 2004 to go on probation along with Miami, Notre Dame and Syracuse. That’s more than one-quarter of the membership, and no testament to the ACC’s much-touted excellence.

Fourteen ACC schools rate among the top 81 nationally, seven in the top 34, according to 2017 scholastic ratings by U.S. News and World Report. Louisville is an outlier at 165th, akin to its status when it gained ACC membership in 2014-15. But then, Louisville was brought aboard less as a compatible institution than because the league had lost Maryland to the Big Ten and wanted a replacement with plenty of money and winning programs in such sports as baseball, basketball and football.

ACC partners might be less sanguine if the NCAA had banned Louisville’s basketball program from live TV, a punishment the Infractions Committee recommended for wider usage in 2009. The last big-time program to suffer that fate was Mississippi football in 1995, before rich TV contracts ruled college sports.

Even the vaunted Cameron Crazies were silent on the inviting topic of Louisville’s salacious recruiting tactics. The Cardinals played at Duke last week, the day after the NCAA verdict was announced, and were greeted neither by mocking signs nor chants from the students. Instead the visitors were punished 82-56 by a resurgent Blue Devil squad, the beleaguered Cards’ largest margin of defeat in ACC action this season.

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