Michigan’s self-inflicted sanctions on Thursday were neither righteous nor commendable. While I admire the tone and the language of President Mary Sue Coleman, I found the whole thing to reek of public relations posturing. Michigan sent itself to its room before mom and dad got home, and part of me is hoping that papa NCAA revokes adolescent Michigan’s allowance and doesn’t let it go to the big dance, perhaps just to spite the program. The self-imposed sanctions were severe, but not complete. There are games yet to forfeit, scholarships yet to relinquish and postseasons yet to write off. That Michigan left the NCAA something to punish it with is smart, but comes off as insincere and calculated.
If Michigan didn’t get caught, it would never have come clean. With its back against the wall, the University tried for a last-ditch effort to save face, and I can’t help but feel that it was at least partly disingenuous. I respect Bill Martin and Tommy Amaker. They are honest men, and I want to believe them when they say they want to start fresh and build this program, cleanly, from the bottom up. But fellas! This is college basketball, and there is no clean; there is only relatively clean and not yet caught.
College athletics are extraordinarily competitive and success and profit are the bottom lines. Can I condemn Steve Fisher for condoning the Ed Martin handouts? Chris Webber for taking them? There is an ethical answer, which is yes, and a practical answer, which is a little cloudy.
But before anyone points the finger at Fisher, his players and his athletic department, we must point the finger at a hypocritical University that tries to maintain athletics in an academic environment. The University ought to admit that the maintenance of a competitive basketball team makes it difficult, if not impossible, to uphold its own ethical and educational standards.
If you want a basketball program, fine. But admit that to have a successful one, the ethics on Central Campus can’t apply to South Campus.
We all like college basketball and we are generally willing to turn a blind eye to rule breaking (like Fisher did) for the sake of success. And I can support the basketball program, as long as we’re all clear on what kind of beast a basketball program really is.
What I am not comfortable supporting is a University that pretends that the program is compatible with our ethical standards. I question a University that apologizes for its mistakes by sanctioning itself, under a veil of self-righteousness, with (part of) what was coming anyway. President Coleman: I liked your language of inclusion, suggesting that you are as much a part of this University as anyone who was here in the early ’90s. Do you really want to take ownership, then realize this: The bottom line is that practically, legally, Michigan did exactly what it should have on Thursday to keep this program alive. I said that Thursday’s press conference and self-sanctioning was great P.R., and it was, and if it doesn’t completely satisfy the NCAA it at least looks great on camera and in the press. But ethically, fundamentally, Michigan cannot have its cake and eat it too. Power and success lead to corruption. If Michigan can run a successful and profitable basketball program without compromising its ethics, then it will have accomplished something that has thus far been shown to be impossible.
Michigan is an institution of higher education and should be held to higher ethical standards than the individuals who represent it. Thursday’s sanctions were a step in the right direction, but again, they were predominantly a political maneuver. True reform must be realized, if not by the NCAA then by Michigan itself. That should include stricter enforcement of rules, compensation for players, and any number of things that have been suggested over the years. The school may find, if it takes a serious look of the role of athletics (without consideration of its own wallet), that basketball is incompatible with the mission of the University.
President Coleman said that integrity is our highest priority. I value integrity, and I like college basketball, but I tend to ignore the one to enjoy the other. The University of Michigan does not have that luxury.
Special thanks to Seth Klempner, whose ideas contributed to this column. David Horn can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.