Crime and Punishment
by David Mosse
In arguably the most anticlimactic event since the divorce of Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie, the proverbial shoe finally dropped on the University of Michigan’s basketball program, courtesy of its own administration. The powers that be in Ann Arbor opted for a proactive approach to punishing the hoops teams for its past transgressions.
Last week, the University levied a ban on postseason play for the upcoming season and pledged to forfeit the entire 1992-93 season, and all games in the 1995-96 season through the 1998-99 season. This is a period highlighted by two trips to the Final Four (’92 and ’93), an NIT title (1997), and the inaugural Big Ten tournament title (1998).
To show it means business, the school will bring down the banners celebrating those accomplishments and return $450,000 in postseason earnings to the NCAA, effectively destroying all remnants from the golden era of Michigan basketball.
While U of M beat the NCAA to the punch, it hasn’t necessarily dealt the knockout blow. The NCAA will review Michigan’s self-imposed punishment and decide whether to access further penalties, such as a television ban and perhaps more crippling, the elimination of scholarships.
For Michigan, this day has been six years in the making. Ever since Maurice Taylor crashed his curiously pricey Ford Explorer on his way home from a night of partying, which included a stop at Michigan booster Ed Martin’s house, buzzards have been circling around this program. Everyone associated with the Wolverines knew this was coming. The only question is what took so long?
Following Taylor’s crash, the school promptly launched an investigation into Martin’s dealings with the basketball program, an investigation that led to Steve Fisher’s firing and Martin’s prohibition from any contact with the University. If Michigan spotted such improprieties way back then, why has it taken so long for the NCAA to seriously review the matter?
Not until Martin, a notorious Detroit gambler, was nabbed on charges of running a numbers game last year, did the NCAA become fully aware of his activities. The FBI uncovered documents revealing Martin laundered $616,000 through Taylor, and fellow Michigan players, Chris Webber, Robert Traylor, and Louis Bullock. Webber vehemently denies taking any money and is currently under indictment for perjury.
In spite of these latest steps taken by the University, Michigan must still wait, probably until next February, to learn of its ultimate fate. Consequently, the team will enter this season as it has the previous five, with a cloud hanging over them.
This uncertainty has harmed the Wolverines more than any punishment ever could. Unable to lure the state’s top recruits due to the possibility of NCAA sanctions, the balance of power shifted causing Michigan fans to suffer the greatest indignity- watching the Spartans win a national championship with a roster stocked with home grown talent.
A once proud program has been reduced to a laughing stock posting the worst back-to-back seasons in school history and the loss in prestige has hurt Michigan off the court. The lack of postseason revenue as well as a decline in merchandising sales has in part, contributed to the athletics department’s financial woes.
Cynics will argue that for all the dramatics, Michigan’s self-imposed penalties add up to a slap on the wrist. After all, taking down banners and removing names from the record books will not negate all the dollars and exposure those players brought to a University that prior to the Fab Five, was known exclusively for its football. As for the postseason ban, what kind of punishment is that for a program that has missed the NCAA Tournament the past four years?
In actuality, Michigan basketball, the current edition that is, has suffered enough. The measures taken by University President Mary Sue Coleman and Athletic Director Bill Martin were correctly aimed at the past rather than the future, for it is in the past, the distant past that this story unfolded.
It may not seem like that long, but in terms of the Michigan power structure, these incidents occurred a lifetime ago. The Wolverines are two coaches, two athletic directors, and a school president removed from the Fab Five. Why should Tommy Amaker and Bernard Robinson be punished for Steve Fisher and Chris Webber’s mistakes?
Short of strapping Webber and his fellow cronies to a time machine and transporting them back to their Maize and Blue days, there is no way for Michigan to punish them for their crimes. All the University can do is dismiss their accomplishments and make them feel as unwelcome as possible. And all the NCAA can do is learn from this incident and make sure it never happens again.
Had the NCAA been more alert and moved quicker when red flags were initially raised, they might have nailed some of the perpetrators. Webber was long gone but the other three culprits, and the coach that presided over them, were still there for the taking.
Now, in an effort to save face, they may opt to take their aggression out on a bunch of innocent kids, and a man who has been nothing but a gentlemen. By allowing the criminals to flee, and making others serve their prison time, the NCAA would provide a fitting end to one of the most mishandled cases in the history of college athletics.
The NCAA’s incompetence has already proven its cruelest tool for it has prevented Michigan from closing this ugly chapter in its history and moving forward. By resisting the urge to pile-on, they would at least give a program, which is committed to doing things to right way, a fighting chance to return from oblivion.
Yet, fans in Ann Arbor shouldn’t hold their breath, for if ever a school was in position to be used as an example, by an institution whose toughness has come into question, its Michigan. So when Daniel Horton is sitting in his room two years from now wondering why he is prohibited from playing basketball in March, he need look no further than the big Chris Webber poster on his wall.
A poster he bought when he was 10 years old.