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The NCAA brought down the heavy hand of (arbitrary) college athletics justice on Syracuse on Friday, stripping the Orange of 12 basketball scholarships over the next four years, suspending coach Jim Boeheim for nine ACC games next season, and vacating more than 100 of Boeheim’s career wins. These penalties are the result of NCAA violations in the Syracuse basketball program that date all the way to 2001.
Among the most egregious of the violations was an admission that Syracuse didn’t follow its own written policy for a failed drug test because it was too confusing. Too confusing? It’s a written policy. Don’t you think, just maybe, if it was really that confusing, the Orange could have rewritten it to be less confusing? Nah, let’s just make it up as we go along instead. There also were many years of academic fraud to keep players eligible over the past decade.
For all of this, violations that extend back 14 years — Syracuse basketball vacates wins, pays fines, Boeheim misses nine games, and, most significantly to the health of the program overall, the Orange lose three basketball scholarships a year for the next four years. That could be a massive hit to the program. Then again, UConn won a national title last year while still on probation. So who the hell knows whether Syracuse basketball will wither on the ACC vine.
The most interesting aspect of the penalty continues to be the arbitrary way the NCAA metes out justice. Boeheim leads a program that has been violating rules for more than a decade and he gets a nine-game suspension.
Another man who made a living coaching a basketball team in orange uniforms, Bruce Pearl, received a three-year show cause plus an eight-game conference suspension for lying about an off-campus BBQ. (A rule that is so insignificant, by the way, that the NCAA has since changed it to make Pearl’s violation permissible for everyone.)
Remember Tulsa coach Frank Haith? He got a five-game suspension for lying to the NCAA about paying players when he was at Miami. And how about the University of North Carolina? The school conspires to keep athletes eligible for more than a decade by taking sham courses and it’s not an NCAA violation at all.
Heck, how about Jim Tressel at Ohio State? He got a five-year show cause penalty for violations that are infinitely less significant than the allegations against Boeheim and Syracuse.
How do you reconcile all these arbitrary penalties? You can’t. Unless you just accept the clear precedential value: Lying to the NCAA about an off-campus BBQ is the worst violation in the history of college athletics. Well, that or getting free tattoos. Those two trangressions add up to eight years of suspensions from college athletics. But cheating for more than a decade? No big deal, that’ll get you nine games total if you’re Boeheim.
The NCAA is in a strange place: The more it punishes programs for cheating, the more every penalty it’s given in its history seems more absurd. NCAA penalties always have been arbitrary and capricious, but most of us didn’t notice in a pre-Internet era. That’s because NCAA penalties weren’t easily comparable. It was hard to review the files and facts, and most NCAA infractions were local stories.
You were pissed if your team got the penalty, and the local media may have covered the case in detail, but you didn’t spend much time considering the penalty in relation to other penalties. Every penalty stood alone. No longer. Now we all can see that the NCAA is the emperor with no clothes.
In an era when every major college program cheats, the NCAA is a glorified traffic cop. Only, and here’s the real kicker: The NCAA is like a traffic cop that executes some speeding motorists — Pearl and Tressel — and washes the windows of other speeders like North Carolina.
Sure, Boeheim will miss half the ACC games next year, but then he’s basically home free with a slap on the coaching wrist, a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Given the way the NCAA has walked back penalties in the Joe Paterno case, are we completely certain that Boeheim’s vacated wins will remain vacated? (Speaking of which, how many fans even can explain what a vacated win is? Is it a true penalty if your average fan can’t even understand it?)
What’s more, isn’t it awfully convenient that none of the wins get vacated from Boeheim’s only national title team? That title still stands — thanks to Syracuse’s negotiation with the NCAA! — and that’s all most fans care about. Boeheim might just decide that since he’s 70 years old it’s the perfect time to ride off into the New York sunset. He’s headed to the college basketball hall of fame, he has a national title and multiple Final Four appearances. What more does he need to prove? Is it just pride that will keep him at the helm of the Orange over the next several years?
Boeheim is this week’s victim, but the NCAA is a dead man walking. With every arbitrary penalty, another layer of legitimacy crumbles. The message is abundantly clear: Unless you’re Bruce Pearl or Jim Tressel, cheat as much as you want. The punishment never will fit the crime.
Don’t believe me?
Check out Syracuse.