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Louisville shows downside when college sports is strictly business

February 9, 2016 Columns No Comments

For so many, Friday’s announcement by Louisville of a self-imposed postseason ban on this year’s team generated feelings of anger. Disappointment. Sadness. You name it.

At the same time, in the coldest of terms it also was business as usual, just another day in big-time college sports. College Sports Inc., as the author Murray Sperber famously called it. And if one is being consistent, in the short term there really isn’t a whole lot to be outraged about…unless that rage is directed at a college basketball program hiring strippers to entertain current players and recruit more to keep the program humming.

What happened at Louisville is unfortunate in every way. It’s sickening that a program stooped to using strippers (maybe legal, but not an activity anything associated with education should be remotely paired with) and prostitutes (clearly illegal) to pacify athletes. It’s frustrating that coaches who make millions of dollars and have enough staff to assign coaches or managers to just about every single player, can somehow claim ignorance when things like this or the North Carolina academic scandal happen. It’s pitiful when the school slaps current players in the faces with hurried self-imposed punishments, all to try to protect the future.

At the same time, it’s hard to have a ton of sympathy for anyone involved in this particular situation, other than that they’re involved in it in the first place. Empathy for emotions, certainly, but all involved are complicit to a degree, symbols of the major college sports model that will never be perfect, but can still do so much better than it does.

Sadly, that includes the Cardinals’ two graduate transfers, Damion Lee and Trey Lewis.  It was these two who after the announcement drew most of the outpouring and raised the ire of so many towards Louisville administration and, as usual, the NCAA, even though the NCAA had nothing to do with these sanctions.

It was reported both were in tears after the news was given to the team, and understandably so. Punishment hurts, especially when those punished were not present when the actions being punished took place.

What happened to them may not make sense, but this should: Lee and Lewis made business decisions. And so did Louisville.

First, let’s be clear: in-season self-imposed postseason bans are gutless. No matter how bad the penalties could be later, there was no reason Louisville couldn’t have saved a self-imposed ban for next year. There will be griping about postseason sanctions no matter when they take place (and that shouldn’t be forgotten), but a ban next year would’ve been far more fair to this year’s team.

We get why the U of L administration would take the action so quickly. The sooner postseason sanctions can be put in the rearview mirror, the better it is for “The Brand.” This may not be what institutions of education should do, but it absolutely is what businesses do. Doesn’t make it right or justified in the least, but it’s the truth.

(It must also be said that sanctions are a necessity, and postseason bans are still, far and away, the best way to hit programs hard. Other than TV bans-which should also still be used-missing out on the chance of a big bowl game payday or March Madness a couple times is the only thing to make a major Division I athletic department think about how it does business in the era of billion-dollar conference TV deals.)

Every time a team is sanctioned, though, the undercurrent rises quickly: how dare the “innocent kids” be punished. In the case of Lee and Lewis, we’ve been told we should feel especially bad because they came to Louisville specifically for this one year and one goal, the chance to make it to the NCAA Tournament and the Final Four.

Besides there almost certainly being more to it than that (attempting to enhance professional prospects no doubt also played a part), it has to be asked: what of the “innocent” at Drexel and Cleveland State, the schools from which these two departed this spring?

Did the players there deserve having teammates leave them? Cleveland State in particular was set to join Valparaiso as a top-40 level team from the Horizon League this year. Then, over the course of two years, its top three players all transferred to top 20 programs, negating a whole lot of hard work by the rest of the team. Now, CSU is 7-18 and in ninth place in the Horizon.

Where was and is all the concern for “innocent kids” there? It’s pretty silly to contend it’s morally acceptable for student-athletes to leave teammates behind, to ditch teammates to do what they think will better themselves, but be upset when the schools take the same action.

Oh, that’s right. It’s Cleveland State and Drexel, so no one cares.

Of course, this particular case might’ve been solved beforehand if schools could just agree to eliminate the graduate transfer waiver, and make anyone transferring for their senior year sit out a year. (Notice we’re not blanket-blaming the NCAA here, because-as is so conveniently often left out-the rules are voted on by the schools.)

If a player graduates and wants to go to another school to finish his career, that’s fine. But there’s no reason whatsoever to all but encourage them to do so and give a silent green light to coaches to poach other schools’ rosters, which is what the current rules do.

If the two Louisville transfers had to sit out this year, they would be eligible to play in the tourney next year. Or, perhaps they would’ve thought more closely about going to another school.

We do know transferring is hardly a new phenomenon by the time the kids get to college, so the Louisville duo is hardly unique and, frankly, is merely a product of the culture. Prospective high-level college basketball recruits transfer high schools regularly to find a more prominent team. It happens even more on the AAU circuit.

In short: the kids have learned how to play the game. And that’s exactly what Lee and Lewis were doing when they chose to transfer to Louisville.

Undoubtedly, the anger of many in this case involves our youth being collateral damage, and that’s good. To be concerned about our young is natural and right. Adults are supposed to protect, raise and nurture youth, not exploit them, and we should be angry when we see the latter.

But let’s understand: the issue is far deeper than the simple final result of a few college seniors not getting the privilege to play in the NCAA Tournament. That the kids have learned from the adults and become so cynical and business-minded in what are still their formative years should really be what scares people.

And no, we’re not going to pin this all solely at the feet of coaches, based on the prevailing theory that they’re “always” jumping jobs, ditching their players and leaving them helpless, so why shouldn’t the kids be allowed to do the same?

For one thing, two wrongs don’t make a right, but there is also this: 1) coaches are working paying jobs and usually supporting families, while college kids are still college kids, and 2) the number of college head coaches who actually are job-jumping, moving up the career ladder every few years and leaving broken promises in the dust, is hopelessly overdramatized. The overwhelming majority of D-I head coaches who leave jobs-we’re talking around 90%-are either fired, resign under pressure or are getting out before they are forced out.

On the other hand, college athletes-no matter how cynical one is-are supposed to be in school to get an education. Colleges allegedly sponsor sports because of the life lessons and skills they teach, and before branding that as quaint and outdated, do remember that is why they get a tax exemption. If athletes want purely on-the-job training without education, they can go pro or, if just out of high school, should go to the NBDL.

That doesn’t mean coaches are blameless-they’re not, and Louisville proved that with spades-or that missteps should be excused. They shouldn’t be.

Ultimately, this is the system we have. It is well-meaning but flooded with issues starting at the top, with schools and conferences (and, yes, the NCAA) selling their souls to TV, and has trickled down.

That said, it’s not hopeless. It will never be perfect because it incorporates human beings, and human beings will make mistakes, but there is room to do better. Requesting educators to act like educators should not be too much to ask.

The “solution” we hear espoused more and more is that college sports should be completely deregulated. Just let them all be pros. Let the boosters buck up as much as they want for a recruit. Make it rain.

By that logic, the only problem with what happened at Louisville was that the NCAA and its big, mean investigators stepped in at all and actually saw a problem with an athletic department backed by an educational institution providing sex for players and recruits. Really?

If anyone is moved by Lee and Lewis’s reaction after receiving the news of their NCAA tourney dreams being extinguished, they should ask themselves this: would treating them explicitly, solely as pros have really made them feel better? Do we really want to get in the business of encouraging cynicism in our young?

Their tears reaffirmed something we already knew: that the NCAA Tournament is a special event, and it means something to get there. That it’s not easy to get to is part of what makes it special. And if our college-aged are aspiring to something so much that it puts them in tears when they can’t get there, isn’t that a good thing?

When was the last time a player cried when they missed the NBA playoffs?

That college sports is far from perfect does not mean we shouldn’t aspire to its ideals, even if we can’t attain them. Raising expectations is still a better option than lowering them.

Is it hard to get back to the basics? For sure. There always will be a business aspect to major college sports in this country because they are so popular, but that doesn’t mean restraint can’t be practiced.

Perfection is impossible. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try anyway.

We can do better, and we should demand better from our colleges and universities. And if we don’t, then there’s frankly little reason to stress out when we watch the next Louisville happen.

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