Sports journalists who occupy their time primarily covering a single sport routinely cite reasons why their respective area of expertise in the sports arena is superior to all others. NFL advocates laud the unmatched parity of the league, baseball writers tout the game’s majesty, NBA observers note the association’s unmatched star power – you get the picture. For a long time, college basketball proponents have pointed to the excitement of March Madness while college football pundits have cited the tradition that enhances the sport when making their separate cases. Those who cover college football and basketball should now unite and start trumpeting this unique claim to preeminence: In no other sports do success and popularity ensue in spite of the governing body.
Excepting the Bud Selig cynics, the “No Fun League” comedians and the professional-style-of-basketball polemicists, few could make a case that Major League Baseball, the NFL or the NBA work to limit the growth and prosperity of their games. In all three, the rules established and decisions rendered mostly attempt to satisfy fans and showcase the best of each sport. Even the NHL – which at times appears directionless and out of touch with the demand for its product – hasn’t limited the brutal fighting that likely attracts many fans to hockey. All of those various league executives and presiding bodies understand that satisfying consumers and appearing as fan-friendly as possible is a crucial component to the equation for success. The NCAA, however, missed that memo.
For the sake of fairness and accuracy, one must note that the NCAA is perhaps fundamentally different from the cited analogs because the latter don’t oversee amateurs, yet there are also parallels to be drawn because the NCAA, like its professional counterparts, is the organizing entity responsible for promoting the competition, and that role has been willingly played to great financial gain. Thus, there are necessarily more rules required to govern amateurs, yet the ones in place often don’t make sense and have worked to detract from the products the NCAA lucratively sells through television and merchandise.
Quite simply, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has mastered self-vilification, diminishing its reputation and appeal through sundry foolish decisions and illogical rules that have seemed vindictive, myopic or devoid of sensibility. In few areas has this propensity for ineptitude and self-defaming behavior been as apparent as in punishing schools and athletes that committed transgressions of the rules, some sensible and some not.
The NCAA often makes punitive decisions that seem to be informed by neither common sense nor reason. Why, for instance, can’t a high school kid live with a benefactor who enables that athlete to graduate high school and avoid trouble, two results that might otherwise not occur? That situation should not constitute a compromising of the kid’s amateur status. Or, could someone please explain why a school can sell millions of jerseys featuring a star player’s uniform number, yet that athlete can’t receive one cent of the proceeds? That scenario seems exploitative. Really, many schools and athletes in Division I athletics often excel despite the best attempts of the governing body to thwart competition and impede the lives of its dependent coaches and players. There is no other way to think of the NCAA, an organization that again put its flawed judgment and self-defeating proclivity on display last week when it banned the University men’s basketball team from participating in any postseason tournaments for which it may qualify in 2004.
The reasons for the ban stem from an array of transgressions – mostly illegal payments totaling more than $600,000 to Chris Webber, Maurice Taylor, Robert Traylor and Louis Bullock by now-deceased “friend” of the program, Ed Martin – committed in the ’90s by players, coaches and an outside booster who have had nothing to do with the University since 1998. Acknowledging that the University made an earnest attempt to atone for its past sins, the NCAA imposed additional punishments, placing the University on probation for three-and-a-half years, mandating that the University avoid all contact with the four players involved for 10 years, stripping the basketball program of one scholarship for four years commencing next recruiting cycle and banning next season’s team from postseason play.
The first three stipulations seem appropriate given the egregious crimes committed and the nature of the punishments – they will all hurt the school, primarily. The postseason ban, however, while harmful to the institution, mostly affects next year’s coaching staff and players, none of whom committed any wrongdoing according to the NCAA. In effect, innocent people are being punished for the crimes committed by others. Who cares? How about Bernard Robinson, Jr., a man whose inspired play last year was a major component in the team’s success and a rising senior who deserves better than a final year of eligibility spent playing for synthetic goals and consolation prizes. In more universal terms, why should an infraction committed by a family member before you were born commit you to a sentence in Pelican Bay?
The cry of injustice may seem hackneyed, yet it is apt. More importantly, the NCAA deserves to be taken to task for its decision last week because the organization continues to misallocate blame, never learning from its previous errors. At too may schools – Miami, Alabama, Kentucky, Michigan to name a few – people have been unfairly asked to atone for mistakes committed by their predecessors. The NCAA should punish the programs and the schools but spare people who have done nothing wrong.
The University will be fine; the program will persevere. Likely, Coach Tommy Amaker, his staff and his players will achieve success made to seem even greater by the adversity they will be asked to negotiate. Just ask longtime basketball coach Rick Pitino or University of Miami football coach Larry Coker how that feels. However, the NCAA must now look down and see if it has anything left to stand on, having now shot itself in the foot so many times. Sports fans have already heard a mighty chorus sing out in opposition to the NCAA’s ruling, and as football and basketball seasons return next fall and winter, the sports will be followed by an adoring audience who love the games and resent the misguided organization that presides over them. Do not feel sorry for the University. Instead, pity the endlessly inane NCAA, which does not learn from history.
Litman is a University alumnus.