Column: NCAA Sleaze Dominates Final FourApril 14, 2016

Column: NCAA Sleaze Dominates Final FourWhen the Villanova Wildcats beat the University of North Carolina Tar Heels on a last second basket to win the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, it prevented one of this year’s two Final Four teams with dirty laundry from taking home the National Championship trophy. UNC had beaten Syracuse, the other recent NCAA miscreant, two nights earlier to advance to the final game. Syracuse, like the University of Connecticut three years earlier, advanced to the Final Four after sitting out the tournament the previous year. The Huskies were banned in 2013 for falling below the Academic Progress Rate threshold, a complicated and totally meaningless formula contrived by the NCAA to pretend that student athletes were obtaining an education while they were actually in college to play sports. One year later, the UConn men’s basketball team celebrated the school’s fourth national championship.

Syracuse self-imposed a tournament ban last year after the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions found that a basketball staffer had done coursework for a player in order to keep him eligible; the school had ignored or violated its own drug testing program; and that a booster had provided players with extra benefits. The NCAA slapped Syracuse with additional sanctions that included a reduction in scholarships, five years of probation and a requirement that it return funds from three prior tournament appearances. In addition, Coach Jim Boeheim was suspended for nine games and was forced to vacate 108 victories after the Committee determined that he failed to promote an “atmosphere of compliance.”

Yet there were the Orange, basking in the glow of media attention and fan adulation that comes with success on the court. The question is: Should they have been? Should any team that violates NCAA rules and suffers the penalties that were imposed against Syracuse – and UConn and a number of teams before them – be in a position to win the national championship so soon thereafter?

For me, the answer is yes. While some critics disagree, and like me are revolted when the likes of Boeheim are allowed to continue coaching, the violations that occurred at Syracuse were the result of administration and/or coaching fraud, malfeasance and dereliction of duty. No player, especially one who did not participate in the prohibited activity, should be punished for the actions of University higher ups who are rewarded for their misdeeds. Rather than punish innocent student-athletes by preventing them from participating in post season tournaments, the NCAA should assess heavy fines against the institution and discipline the administrators and coaches who allow the grievous acts to occur.

Instead, we have Boeheim at the Final Four in Houston saying that cheating and breaking rules aren’t the same thing, the dictionary and common sense be damned. In response to a reporter’s question, Boeheim said, “…when they say ‘cheating,’ that’s not true [of Syracuse]. Rules being broken is a lot different. Cheating to me is intentionally doing something, like you wanted to get this recruit so you arranged a job for him, or you went to see him when you shouldn’t. You called him when you shouldn’t to gain an edge in recruiting to get a really good player. That’s cheating.” Huh? Having a coach write a paper for a member of the team isn’t cheating? Arranging a phantom job for a player at the local YMCA isn’t exactly what Boeheim described as cheating? Not only did Boeheim fracture the English language with his comments, he unveiled a new dictionary. With role models like Boeheim, little wonder that the world of collegiate athletics, at least the Division I variety, is sometimes viewed as the equivalent of an overflowing cesspool. The stench is overpowering.

The NCAA has yet to complete its investigation of the Tar Heels, following which it will determine appropriate penalties. But the predictions of hefty sanctions seem warranted. The University was charged with a lack of institutional control, the NCAA’s penultimate offense. Administrators created sham courses within the African-American Studies department for the sole purpose of allowing members of the Athletic Department’s academic support staff to enroll academically at-risk student-athletes, including some in men’s basketball.

UNC may well be the next program to emulate UConn. But for this year at least, Villanova saved the NCAA the embarrassment of having a recent rules violator win the National Championship in men’s basketball.