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The Racket That is American Collegiate Athletics

Photo by Chris Breeze | CC BY 2.0

American collegiate sport has long been bedevilled by malfeasance, encompassing sexual assaults (the Benedict-Crosset Study of sexual assaults at thirty major Division I universities over a three-year period showed that athletes commit 1 in 3 college sexual assaults), violent assaults and battery, armed robberies, burglary, shop-lifting, under-the-table payments, and drug-taking and drug-dealing.

A couple of scandals affecting US collegiate basketball have been in the news recently. The scandals in question involve the University of Louisville and the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill).

The Louisville situation is perhaps the less untidy of the two when it comes to athletes.  Coached from 2001 to 2017 by the Hall of Famer Rick Pitino, Louisville has been beset by scandals involving the personal life of Pitino and the team he coached until recently.

Pitino admitted he was involved in a brief sexual liaison with the then wife of his team’s equipment manager in 2003.  She subsequently tried to extort money from Pitino for this encounter (he paid her $3000 when she told him she needed an abortion as a result of their liaison), and despite the shadiness involved in this case (Pitino apologized for his “indiscretion”), Louisville retained Pitino as its coach.

Faced with an NCAA investigation over a scandal where escorts and strippers were provided for recruits between 2010 and 2014 (as well as the fathers who accompanied their sons on these recruiting visits!), Louisville imposed a postseason ban on itself for the 2015–16 season.

In September this year, it was revealed that Louisville was part of an ongoing federal investigation involving several universities, in which potential basketball recruits were paid substantial fees by a manufacturer of sports equipment to sign-up for the university involved, and to represent the manufacturer when they turned pro.

At this point the Louisville administration and board of trustees decided that Pitino, along with Louisville’s athletic director, had finally done enough to be shown the door, even though he denied having any knowledge of what was going on.

As a result of these infractions, the NCAA stripped Louisville of its 2013 national collegiate basketball championship.

The case involving the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) is even more egregious.

I have to admit that I’m employed by UNC’s great rival in basketball, but this in no way clouds my judgment.  In fact, before I was employed by Duke, the coach I esteemed above all was the UNC’s legendary Dean Smith, a proponent of racial integration and planned parenthood, whereas the Duke coach, Mike Krzyzewski, ran a Blue Devils for George Bush Senior campaign in 1988.

The gist of what UNC did is by now well-known.

In May 2012 UNC released an internal report showing that there were 9 African studies classes without any evidence that a professor taught the course in question (professors’ signatures were forged on submitted grade lists). In more than 40 other courses, there was little evidence of classroom teaching or other “instructional contact”, according to the report, though the no-show courses were described as lecture classes. The head of the African studies department was forced to resign, and had his final salary docked for a class he was paid to teach but did not. A department secretary who “graded” the papers for the non-existent classes was also dismissed.

UNC claimed from the beginning that the scandal was not an athletics issue– and hence outside the remit of the NCAA, the governing body for collegiate athletics, because the ghost classes were also open to non-athletes– but was instead an academic one coming under the jurisdiction of UNC’s academic accreditation body.

However, a member of UNC’s Board of Governors, former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, blew this bogus rationale (“the fraud was about academics not athletics, etc.”) out of the water when he pointed out that athletes accounted for 45% of the enrollments in the ghost classes over a 10-year period, while constituting less than 5% of UNC’s undergraduate student body.

UNC won two national championships in basketball (in 2005 and 2009) using players who took the fake classes.

Its basketball coach, Roy Williams, claimed to know nothing of the fake classes.  Anyone who believes him will probably also believe the long jump in the next Olympics will be won by a penguin.

Astonishingly, the NCAA committee on infractions swallowed UNC’s line that these breaches were purely a matter of academic fraud and thus unconnected with athletics, and passed the buck to UNC’s accreditation body, which hurled the buck into outer space by putting UNC on a mere year’s probation!

No national championships were forfeited, no sports scholarships were taken away, no bans on post-season play were enacted, not even probation (a lenient form of punishment!) for teams with players who took the fake classes was imposed—clearly, UNC got away with the proverbial slap on the wrist.

UNC had spent $18 million in legal fees to get itself off the hook, so every dollar of this was worth it in the end.

The message the NCAA gave to colleges in its handling of UNC was this:  as far as we are concerned, there is no problem with student-athletes taking fake classes as long as non-athletes can enroll in the same classes!

UNC is a basketball powerhouse, a big revenue provider for the NCAA, and this almost certainly played a part in the leniency shown it by that shamefully derelict body.

The NCAA’s annual basketball tournament (“March Madness”) alone is a massive revenue earner, especially from television rights.

According to Business Insider, in 2016 “the two sides [the NCAA and CBS TV/Turner Network Television] agreed to another eight-year extension, despite their current deal not expiring until 2024. Starting in 2025, the NCAA will be taking in $1.1 billion each year from the NCAA Tournament’s TV deal alone…. And that’s just the TV revenue. We aren’t even considering ticket and concession sales or other forms of revenue”.

The famed University of Nevada (Las Vegas) basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, renowned for his acid tongue as well as his coaching prowess, used to have frequent run-ins with the NCAA.

At the same time his loathed rival, the University of Kentucky, a perennial collegiate basketball powerhouse like UNC, seemed to “Tark the Shark” to have an easier time dealing with the ruling body.

Exasperated after Kentucky appeared to have breezed through yet another milquetoast encounter with the NCAA’s committee on infractions, Tark said “the NCAA is so mad at Kentucky they’re going to give Cleveland State another year of probation”.  (Thanks to my friend Robert Tally for reminding me of Tark’s statement.)

Tark had of course cut to the chase in this caustic comment:  make lotsa money for the NCAA, and you’ll probably be entitled to leniency from it should you be accused of an infraction.

Had the waspish Tark been alive today, he would probably have substituted “UNC” for “Kentucky” in his remark.

More articles by:

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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