The innocent pay for the crimes

The NCAA needs to find a way to punish corrupt coaches and players without hurting kids who did no wrong.

Published March 14, 2003 10:44PM (EST)

I am one of the towering figures in American literature, and the players on the University of Texas-El Paso men's basketball team, who went 6-23 this year, can always boast about winning the national championship.

Confused? Don't be. I'm just using NCAA logic.

As the NCAA sees it, I should get credit for being an author for the ages because I used to write for the San Francisco Examiner where, 85 years earlier, Jack London had done the same thing. Today's UTEP Miners can tell their grandkids about being national champs -- who can forget the scoring of current players Giovanni St. Amant and John Tofi! The rebounding of Justino Victoriano! -- because Texas-El Paso, then known as Texas Western, won the NCAA Tournament in 1966. And they did it with an all-black starting lineup, by the way, a big milestone in race relations. Way to go, St. Amant and Co.

This is the logic the NCAA uses when it punishes today's kids for the sins of those who came before them. The University of Michigan, for example, is ineligible for the postseason because of a scandal involving illegal payments to players 10 years ago, when today's players were in elementary school. The only person involved in that scandal who's still under the NCAA's control is the Wolverines' former coach, Steve Fisher, now the coach of San Diego State. His punishment is that he won't get to go to the NCAA Tournament unless his Aztecs win the Mountain West tourney, which was to start Thursday night.

Fresno State, which won the Western Athletic Conference regular-season championship, pulled itself out of both the conference and NCAA tournaments because of an academic fraud scandal that involved not a single player or coach on this year's team.

The president of the university, John Welty, is still on the job, and is in fact making proud clucking noises about how the school's self-flagellation stands as a shining example of doing the right thing, facing the music. Welty, of course, is the guy who approved the hiring of serial cheater Jerry Tarkanian as basketball coach in 1995. The violations occurred under Tarkanian, who had earlier thrown the basketball programs at UNLV and Long Beach State into ignominy. Welty's idea of facing the music is to punish a bunch of people who were uninvolved, rather than, oh, I don't know, the university president who hired a famously dirty coach.

Over at Georgia, the university hired a dirty coach of its own, Jim Harrick. He'd won a national title at UCLA but was fired for financial shenanigans. After a stay at Rhode Island -- now investigating alleged academic and financial fraud on Harrick's watch, which came to light in a sex harassment lawsuit against him that the university settled -- Harrick arrived in Athens, where he's now on paid suspension in a developing academic and financial scandal.

The school did the right thing there too, supposedly, withdrawing from the Southeast Conference and NCAA tournaments even though it could have fielded a team of eligible players untouched by the scandals. Two of those players, Ezra Williams and Steven Thomas, sued, hoping that a judge would issue a temporary injunction that would prevent the university from declaring itself ineligible for the conference tournament and March Madness. The judge denied the request and said he'd hold a hearing Monday morning, meaning the NCAA Tournament field, for which Georgia had been a lock, will already have been announced, without the Bulldogs. Georgia's season is almost certainly over.

Harrick was notorious before he set foot on campus, but again, the administrators who hired him have paid no penalty. Just the kids. Georgia president Michael Adams gets to look like a stand-up guy, if you don't look too closely, because he and athletic director Vince Dooley took a strong stand against wrongdoing. Adams took an even stronger stand behind the closed door of his house when the remaining players paid him a visit looking for an explanation for why their postseason had been canceled even though they hadn't been accused of any wrongdoing. Adams refused to open up. He called the police. The cops prevailed upon him to talk to the kids.

"He told us, 'We rejoice as a team, we suffer as a team,'" junior Jarvis Hayes said to "He's not suffering. I think he did it to save his own job." Hayes, who had said he would be back for his senior year, now plans to enter the NBA draft.

And make no mistake about why these schools are so quick to punish themselves -- once someone, usually a digging reporter or a disgruntled former player, blows the whistle, that is. They're hoping the NCAA will go easy on them with future punishment. They're like that kid on the playground who's run afoul of the school bully. "Look," they're saying, "I'm punching myself. You don't have to hit me."

One group of players stood up to this nonsense recently and brought down an administration, though they had to sort of cut off their own noses to do it. St. Bonaventure's players voted not to play the last two games of the regular season after the Atlantic 10 not only forced them to forfeit six conference games they'd won with an ineligible player, which seemed fair enough, but also banned the team from postseason play, even without the player in question.

That player, Jamil Terrell, had transferred from junior college with a welder's certificate, rather than an associate's degree. The illegal transfer had been personally approved by St. Bonaventure's president, Robert Wickenheiser, who over the summer assured the university's board of trustees Terrell was legit despite questions raised by athletic director Gothard Lane.

The Bonnies players wondered, rightly, why they should be punished for the sins of Wickenheiser and their coaches. They figured that, with their school having sold them out to try to lessen any future sanctions, they didn't have much motivation for pulling on the uniforms two more times. Though they were fricasseed by the typing classes -- Quitters! How can they let their school down? Shame and fie! -- it was a move of dazzling political skill and bravery. The ensuing national publicity forced the board of trustees to demand Wickenheiser's resignation. Lane and the coaching staff were placed on administrative leave.

That result is a good start. The NCAA needs to come up with some way to punish wrongdoers without punishing the innocent -- or at least without punishing the unaccused, since it's a tenuous thing indeed to call anyone associated with the rampantly corrupt world of college basketball "innocent."

If that ever happens, and don't bet your lunch money on it, the only problem would be that I'd no longer get to take credit for writing "The Call of the Wild."

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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