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Effects of big boys’ autonomy on display in Louisville case

June 16, 2017 Columns No Comments

On the surface to some, the NCAA’s four-year probation, head coach suspension and possible vacation of a national championship for Louisville’s men’s basketball program might’ve sounded like meaty penalties, or at least like an attempt at them, when they were announced Thursday morning.

It didn’t take much research, though, to figure out they were not. Louisville wasn’t “hit” by penalties Thursday so much as shot at with a paintball gun. The hit to the ego is far more than the actual pain.

If Louisville has to vacate its 2013 national title-and that wasn’t a sure thing Thursday, with vagaries about the NCAA not being sure which games would be vacated yet, and such decisions depending on just who played when, for how long, etc.-it will be seen as an emotional blow locally, more than those on the outside might understand. Of course, its actual effect is nothing; the games were already played, and Wichita State isn’t going to be playing Michigan in that year’s title game any time soon.

A five-game suspension of coach Rick Pitino at the start of Atlantic Coast Conference play this coming season, on the other hand, couldn’t be more soft. When Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was suspended for nine games just two years ago, the NCAA Tournament selection committee readily admitted its performance with and without him would be factored into its evaluation of the Orange’s at-large candidacy. Sure enough, the Cuse not just got into the tourney with a 19-13 record, but safely as a 10 seed, and rode it all the way to the Final Four. When it comes to weak penalties, this is as toothless as they come.

Fans can be sore about the idea that their title was tainted. Coaches can go stir crazy at home for several weeks, out of the routine they’ve held during hoops season for decades. In the end, though, neither is a severe blow that disrupts business as usual for an athletic department like Louisville.

The NCAA’s sanctions of Louisville were more notable for what they lacked than what they included. Despite deeming what the school did to be serious enough to warrant a four-year probationary period, the NCAA Committee on Infractions also decided the school’s one-year, self-imposed postseason ban in 2016 was sufficient suffering.

Far more than coach suspensions, vacating records or even light scholarship reductions, postseason bans and television bans are the only true punitive sanctions short of the death penalty that major colleges fear. And the schools know it, which is why they so quickly self-impose the bans-to get them out of the way.

Once upon a time, four years of probation, or even three, meant a school was in deep heat with the NCAA. USC’s four-year football probation in 2011 resulted in two years without postseason. Mississippi football received a four-year probation in 1994 that included a two-year postseason ban and a one-year television ban.

Kentucky basketball was tagged in 1989 for three years probation, two years out of the postseason and one year without TV, while Oklahoma football received a three-year probation the year before that with a two-year postseason ban AND two years of no TV. All also included heavy scholarship reductions.

The new norm is schools like Louisville are rarely going to take anything more than an occasional postseason ban by convenience. Penn State set the precedent after the Jerry Sandusky sanctions, with appeals and political pressure revealing just how easily the NCAA can be pushed over now. Every other major football school is now following it: if the NCAA hammers you, fight back, threaten lawsuits, lawyer up, and do everything in your power to intimidate the NCAA into softening.

In its long-running case, North Carolina has ramped up the full-court pressure on the NCAA as well as Dean Smith ever did at the end of a game. And Louisville was unsurprisingly petulant Thursday, with its interim president claiming the already light NCAA penalties were “excessive” and Pitino claiming he had “lost all faith in the NCAA.” Louisville plans to appeal penalties that, as some noted, they should be thankful for.

NCAA sanctions have gone through peaks and valleys in their harshness over the years, and the Committee on Infractions generally has gotten it right more than not in the past. The NCAA appears plum frightened of these schools right now, though.

To a point, that’s understandable, what with all the body blows the organization has taken from TV personalities and threatened lawsuits, and some of it is self-inflicted with how it has allowed its biggest schools-and has on its own chosen-to chase every last penny, for no good reason. The point of necessity was surpassed long ago. (Special courts for every NCAA Tournament site? Think we can do without.)

Almost by the day, it sure looks like we’re seeing effects of when the rest of NCAA Division I-those schools not allowed in the pompously self-titled “Power 5”-granted TV’s most favored conferences autonomy. Apparently, autonomy entitlements went far further than increased voting power and allowing additional money for cost of attendance.

From top to bottom, College Football Playoff rankings are dominated by Big Football schools, no matter how many times those supposed “Group of 5” schools beat them in major bowl games or how often the so-called ‘power’ schools fall to I-AA (FCS) teams. Big Football schools also have monopolized all but a couple at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament the last three years, no matter how often the Butlers, VCUs and Wichita States make the Final Four. In both cases, voters and committee members sure look to have been influenced by a brand name and give the benefit of the doubt to schools who have it-and set a nearly unreachable standard for those who do not.

Big Football schools have benefited from television and media coverage that breathlessly carries their message of being a separate, elevated level, regardless of how bad Kansas football or Washington State basketball may be. They benefit from howling by TV personalities at a certain network that has an obvious interest in both the NBA and the prominent TV leagues, who pushed for college basketball rule changes that obviously favor teams recruiting the biggest and most athletic players. And they benefit from the graduate transfer waiver rule and rampant tampering going on in college basketball, where-while such schools are far from the only ones participating-they are at the top of a food chain of cherry-picking players from other schools’ rosters.

Now, the schools with autonomy and already every advantage imaginable don’t want to play by the rules they’ve voted on themselves. Don’t blame the NCAA for this one; this is on the schools-the cheaters, and those who made it so hard to stop them from cheating.

Quite simply, autonomy was the worst thing the non-Big Football Division I schools could ever have agreed to. Of course, they agreed to it in the face of thinly veiled threats by the TV conferences to take their ball and go form their own association. Where, one presumes, hiring hookers to entertain recruits would be not just allowed but encouraged, with cynical college sports analysts in their faux-libertarian fantasies cheering just how awesome it is to see young adults so empowered.

Regardless of what intimidation tactics they employ, the Big Football conferences don’t want to leave the NCAA, and they never have. They know just how good they’ve got it now. College football has delivered them more money than they could dream of, and the NCAA’s tournament contract-carried as much by viewers’ love of underdogs as by blueblood programs like Kentucky and UCLA-is incredibly lucrative, too.

Plus, someone needs to come to their fields and courts for all those guarantee games. Quite simply, the big boys need the little guys, and they know it. Which is why the Division I schools outside the “Power” 5, BCS, Big Football tier-whatever you want to call it-should’ve recognized this years ago and called their bluff.

It’s the same way the NCAA needs to call their bluff now. As long as these schools are under the NCAA umbrella, they need to abide by NCAA rules and live with it. There should be no fear in hammering them with multi-year postseason bans, even TV bans.

If they don’t like it, they can leave. But the bet here is they won’t.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam

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