J. BRADY MCCOLLOUGH: ALL ABOUT THE CAUSE
Published May 11, 2003
So, was it worth it?
Was it worth it to see your team play for two straight national championships? Was it worth it to watch five 18-year olds rub their asses all over the Spartan 'S' at the Breslin Center's half-court? Was it worth it to wear those baggy, maize shorts with the blue block 'M' and know you were the coolest kid on the playground?
After listening to Thomas Yeager, chairman of the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions, tab Michigan's seven years of fun and glory from 1992-99 a "sham," I began to think very hard about that question.
I was sitting in a room of about 60 members of the press, and sure, I was wearing my media "game face." But I had something no one else had - an MCard in my back pocket. I am a student of the University of Michigan, and for the first time in three years, I am embarrassed to be one.
Don't misread me - I am proud of how the University's current administration has handled this scandal, by constantly seeking the truth and eventually imposing sanctions upon itself. But the fact remains that the NCAA's findings, released in a report Thursday, are appalling; it will take a long time for the athletic department and the basketball program to live them down.
For seven years (and who knows, maybe even longer), the University's basketball program was dirty - dirtier than I ever imagined, even after Eddie L. Martin plead guilty a year ago to giving Chris Webber, Robert Traylor, Maurice Taylor and Louis Bullock a sum of more than $616,000.
At least then, we all could write Martin off as an outsider to the program - someone who was giving money to Michigan players because they were from Detroit (except for Bullock, who was from Maryland).
But what the NCAA's investigation revealed was a coach, Steve Fisher, who allowed "Uncle Eddie" to gain an "insider" status within his program. There are many more Martins in this country - basketball junkies who want more than anything to be a part of big-time college basketball. What makes the Michigan case one of the most "egregious" violations in NCAA history, is the fact that the basketball staff didn't keep him on the outside, instead embracing him as a part of the Michigan family.
Martin, who reportedly gave money to other college athletes at other schools as an outsider, began his relationship with Michigan during the Bill Frieder era in the mid-1980s. Even though there were several "red flags" about Martin - two articles in the Detroit Free Press, one in 1985 and another in 1989 - Michigan let Martin become a fixture at Crisler Arena, as he established a "cordial" relationship with Frieder.
When Frieder left in 1989, Martin immediately began to court Fisher and his family, showering them with gifts (usually food items). By the time Webber and Co. were in Ann Arbor, Martin and Fisher had developed a close bond, even after Fisher was warned by Martin's long time friend, assistant coach Perry Watson, to keep Martin at a distance.
Before long, Martin's name regularly appeared on the complimentary admission list for home basketball games, he was given "tunnel access," and it was Fisher who organized these benefits for Martin.
Martin and Fisher were so close that when Fisher's father passed away, Martin organized a barbecue at Fisher's house for the wake and handled the funds for the occasion.
Telephone records indicate that Fisher made a four-minute phone call to Martin two days before the 1992 NCAA Final Four to arrange for Martin to receive two "select" hotel rooms at the team's hotel in Minneapolis. One room was for Martin, and the other was for Webber's family, which gave the NCAA good reason to believe Fisher knew Martin was giving these benefits to the parents of a student-athlete.
The report also said that Martin was involved with the recruitment of players. He became involved with Traylor and Taylor early in high school, developing close ties with Traylor's grandmother and Taylor's aunt. When Michigan State star Mateen Cleaves was making his official paid visit to Michigan in February 1996, he visited Martin's house in Detroit along with Traylor and Taylor. The report said that not only the Michigan players, but also Cleaves, received money from Martin that day.
The last straw came in late summer 1996, when Fisher discovered that Martin had given Bullock and Traylor a deposit to hold an apartment in Ann Arbor and had also purchased airline tickets for the players' parents to attend a tournament in Puerto Rico. Fisher told Martin to take back the deposit and cancel the plane tickets, but that was as far as he went. He did not tell the proper officials at the University of Martin's wrongdoing, and hoped it would just go away.
So, that's the story - finally. Fisher got his hands dirty, and now the University is more than responsible for cleaning up the mess he left behind. The NCAA saw enough "institutional culpability" to slap Michigan with another one-year postseason ban.
The University is appealing, because "it's not fair" to our current athletes, and I understand that. But someone has to pay for this, and it's going to be the University, no matter how unfair it is that Fisher will continue to coach at San Diego State next season.
So, was it worth it?
We all can guess what Fisher's answer would be. But when I look back at those "glorious" seven years now, all I see is a shameful corruption of college athletics.
And as a proud student of this University, that is something I wasn't prepared to see.
J. Brady McCollough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.