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February 23, 2011, 12:33 PM ET
UConn, the NCAA, and the cult of the lawyer

by John Gasaway

The correlation between the eventual on-court performance of an elite prospect and the NCAA grief they can bring down on a program is weak. Derrick Rose brought NCAA grief down on Memphis, but at least he, with a little help from his friend Chris Douglas-Roberts, got the Tigers to the 45th minute of a national championship game. (Unofficially.)

On the other side of the ledger, poor Rick Stansbury did everything except rename the state flower of Mississippi “Renardo Sidneyola” just to lure Renardo Sidney to Mississippi State, and now look. Stansbury’s handshake with the opposing coach before every Bulldog game is always the same:

STANSBURY (reaching to shake hands): Good luck tonight, Coach!
OPPOSING COACH: (pointing, emitting Nelson laugh) Ha-ha! You have Renardo Sidney and I don’t!

Call the Nate Miles episode at Connecticut a “severe Sidney.” Miles never played a minute for the Huskies, but the efforts that UConn devoted to recruiting him in 2007 and 2008 resulted in an announcement from the NCAA yesterday that Jim Calhoun will be suspended for three games next season. Following up on leads first developed by Adrian Wojnarowski and Dan Wetzel in a 2009 Yahoo! Sports report, the Committee on Infractions found that UConn made too many phone calls, sent too many texts, and picked up too many tabs (part of a bill for Miles’ foot surgery, enrollment at his oxymoronically labeled basketball academy, etc.).

Some observers think this punishment is about right, others think it’s too lenient. I think it’s too lawyerly.

The problem’s in the word choice, isn’t it?

Between April 2007 and February 2009, members of the men’s basketball staff violated the provisions of NCAA recruiting legislation by exchanging 150 impermissible phone calls with and sending 190 impermissible text messages to prospective men’s basketball student-athletes.

Recruiting “legislation”? You can have a governing association that administers championships in college sports and I will wish you well. You can even adopt a rule within that association that says schools can only place a certain number of phone calls at certain times to recruits. I will think such a rule is somewhat quaint and wholly unnecessary in 2011, but adopting unnecessary rules is your prerogative. Fine, have at it. But when you refer to this prosaic and subjective phone-call-etiquette preference of yours as “legislation,” I see trouble ahead. I see the divorce of “amount of effort” and “intrinsic importance.”

“My lawyer and I are evaluating my options,” Calhoun said yesterday. I saw that and thought: J’accuse. One more gym rat sucked into the insatiable maw of the college-sports-litigation complex. This genius for inserting lawyers and the appurtenances of litigation into inherently trivial matters causes no end of problems. The malady shared by the NCAA, by many but by no means all coaches, by many but by no means all administrators, and by writers up to and including yours truly on occasion is an overestimation of what’s really at stake. Very little is really at stake. What is at stake is nothing more or less than a game that I and many others are passionate about, the key word being “game.”

I don’t suppose anyone’s to blame for this state of affairs, or if there is such a person I don’t know who it is. I certainly don’t blame the NCAA. We’ve arrived at this spot incrementally over a long period of time, as people of good will made what seemed like the correct decisions at the time. Maybe we can pack up and move to a different spot incrementally over time, one where we enjoy our trivial matters and argue about them passionately and set rules for them and free up our nation’s lawyers for the more important stuff. Let’s give it a shot, with patience, a sense of humor, and due appreciation of proportion.

A coach once said, “I always tried to make it clear that basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live.” Words worthy of a cult following.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here. Book: now available on Amazon.

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