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August 31, 2009
Accept the NCAA's Intrinsic NCAA-ness

by John Gasaway


Maybe this goes without saying when speaking of the NCAA's actions, but their August 20 ruling on Memphis pleased no one.

Dick Vitale and Mike DeCourcy think that forcing the Tigers to vacate their 38 wins from 2007-08 is much too harsh. On the other hand, everyone else in the western hemisphere (e.g., Luke Winn, George Vecsey, Mike Lopresti, Dana O'Neil, Geoff Calkins, Jason King, Tim Cowlishaw, and Mark Kriegel) is apparently of the opinion that former Memphis head coach John Calipari got off easy. Both sides agree wholeheartedly, however, that the NCAA got it wrong. If there's a column out there headlined "Way to Go, NCAA!" I've yet to see it.

I'm not prepared to frame a copy of the NCAA's Public Infractions Report on my wall or anything, but I do wonder how many people have come to grips with that report's central quote. At the June 6 hearing held by the Committee on Infractions, an unnamed committee member told the attorneys from Memphis: "I am not saying they [Memphis] cheated. I am saying the young man [Rose] was not eligible to participate." The NCAA therefore vacated the wins that were recorded with an ineligible player on the floor, without inflicting the traditional "you cheated"-brand of sanctions on either the program or on the former coach.

The reason the NCAA is not saying that Memphis cheated is that no evidence has, to date, come to light proving that they cheated. None of the unhappy writers cited above was able to back up their fulminations with a smoking gun. Said writers are abjectly disgusted with the spectacle of a smiling Calipari tweeting away and earning millions at venerable Kentucky, but at the end of the day these writers can offer us no alternative course of action. At least not yet. Not until the incriminating e-mail comes to light. ("Dear Derrick: Please have someone else take the SAT for you in Detroit this Saturday. Best, Coach Cal.")

Of course the writers I've cited here might respond that the "alternative course of action" is for the NCAA to do its job and start policing amateur basketball more effectively. I'm all in favor of having nimble and effective cops on the college hoops beat. I just think it's fatuous to wait testily in our recliners and expect that the NCAA--a putatively "national" organization that actually employs about half as many people as your nearest Wal-Mart Super Center--will be the sole and exclusive provider of said policing. It is past time to calibrate our expectations accordingly.

Here are the things you can expect, and indeed should demand, of the NCAA:

Probably the most popular single criticism leveled against the NCAA is that it treats the most elite college hoops programs with kid gloves. Call this the Tarkanian critique. Then again, looking at the NCAA's record of enforcement over the past few decades--a span in which even undisputed bluebloods like Kentucky and UCLA have done at least a little hard time, so to speak--I've often wondered if the key variable here isn't really the coach rather than the name on the jersey. (If Duke hired Jim Harrick tomorrow, I trust the NCAA would be at peace with any subsequent investigations of wrongdoing.) Be that as it may, for the NCAA's decisions to have any integrity or subsequent effectiveness (I can dream, can't I?), the chips do have to fall where they may, no matter how illustrious the team or the coach.

More transparency.
I realize I've been on my soap box about this already, but it bears repeating. At a time when criminal defendants on trial for their very lives have their court proceedings televised start to finish, I think the NCAA could stand to be a wee bit more forthcoming while they're weighing vastly more substantial matters like scholarship reductions and eligibility requirements.

In most investigations conducted by the NCAA, there will be at least three primary documents produced: an initial notice of inquiry letter, a subsequent notice of allegations (NOA) and a final infractions report. As things stand now, the first two documents are nominally secret, while the final report is a public document. As a practical matter, however, the shelf life of the NOA's secrecy hinges entirely on two factors: whether the institution in question is public or private (i.e., the degree to which they're subject to various open-records statutes); and 2) the alacrity of the press corps covering said institution. When Indiana was hit with an NOA in February 2008, word leaked out in just four days. Conversely, Memphis successfully kept their NOA under wraps for four full months.

I can understand why the notice of inquiry letter needs to be confidential, but the NOA has much more heft behind it. It should be released as a public document by the NCAA. After all, we're all grown-ups here, we all understand that allegations are just that. Not to mention every NOA's contents are going to spill out at some point anyway. Get the allegations--redacted or bullet-pointed, if need be--out in the open as soon as possible. If that had been done in the Memphis case, John Calipari today would likely be right where he should be: in Elvis's hometown, facing the music.

Now, here are the things that you should just stop, once and for all, expecting from the NCAA:

Investigative prowess.
Ever notice how the evidentiary kick-start to every NCAA investigation comes from outside the NCAA? The damning information always comes from either the schools themselves or from Dan Wetzel.

Yes, I'm exaggerating, a little. (In the case of Rose's SAT, for example, the Chicago Public Schools Internal Audit Division got the ball rolling.) Still, you have to admit that Wetzel, the notably dogged investigator from Yahoo! Sports, has built-in advantages the NCAA will never possess. For while the NCAA has the ability to punish coaches and programs, it lacks any means to compel people to even talk, much less actually tell the truth. That is the worst possible combination for any investigator. Why talk to the jury-judge-and-executioner if he can't make you? Any journalist--heck, any member of the public at large--has a better chance of ferreting out the truth than does the NCAA.

Which is why I was particularly tickled to see writers waxing apoplectic because the NCAA couldn't uncover the "whole truth" regarding Rose's SAT. That was rich. Memo to my fellow professionals: Want to get at the truth about Rose and his test? I believe you know where he now works. Go talk to him. Talk to his agent, his attorney, and his high school coach. Learn the names of Rose's high school teammates. Memorize the address of the Chicago Public Schools Internal Audit Division. Run down the contact info for the Illinois Office of the Inspector General. In short, stop yelling at the investigatively-challenged NCAA and do some investigating. You'll find that you too have built-in truth-finding advantages that the NCAA will always lack.

Even when the NCAA somehow comes across a piece of valid evidence, the organization still has a severely limited sphere of influence. They can only punish players and coaches who still have skin in the game. Once the fall semester grades come in for a one-and-done like Rose, however, he obviously no longer has a stake in this thing called intercollegiate athletics. Note for instance that Rose's attorney, a person paid large sums of money precisely to minimize his client's exposure to legal repercussions, didn't think it necessary to even return calls from the Committee on Infractions. Such is the long arm of the NCAA and the fear it inspires.

If you're a fan of college basketball, you need to learn an important lesson, one essential to the sanity of golfers, makers of foreign policy, and every parent who ever lived. Things, even patently unjust things, are most assuredly going to happen to you that you don't like.

That is your NCAA. This is what you can do about it. Demand consistency. Insist on more transparency. Forget about investigative prowess. Accept the occasional injustice.

You'll sleep better tonight, I promise.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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