Strippers and the NCAA

Let’s begin with a riddle. What’s the difference between the Communist Party and the NCAA?

Answer? One is a dictatorial governing body that punishes innocent people, and the other is the Communist Party.

Don’t get me wrong. The National Collegiate Athletic Association began with lofty ideals and brought much needed reforms to college sports. Credit for that belongs to President Teddy Roosevelt who was concerned by the number of injuries and deaths resulting from college football games. He convened a commission to come up with solutions, and in 1906 what is now the NCAA was formed, mainly to regulate safety standards. But by mid century and the advent of television, the NCAA began to flex its muscles and exercise tighter controls over member institutions. Since then, the Association has become overly intrusive, and arbitrarily punitive in its treatment of athletes, coaches, and schools, so much so as to ruin careers and stymie entire athletic programs. Even worse, most of the sanctions levied by the NCAA have failed to punish those who might be directly guilty of an infraction, and instead punish innocent student athletes and the teams for who they were recruited to play.

Last month, University of Louisville President James Ramsey unilaterally removed his men’s basketball team from any post-season consideration. The reason? According to ESPN’s “Outside the Lines”, five former Louisville players and recruits admitted that they had attended dorm parties in which female strippers danced completely nude. The limber ladies, it seems, were paid by the team’s former graduate assistant coach Andre McGee. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino maintains he knew nothing about the parties, nor was he consulted by Ramsey prior to the announcement of a postseason ban. Strangely enough, Pitino has yet to be interviewed by the NCAA, an organization that routinely holds coaches accountable for anything and everything that goes on with or around their program. Nevertheless, ESPN’s Jay Bilas told Mike and Mike that Ramsey had no choice but to hit his round ball squad with a pre-emptive strike because had he not done so, the NCAA would have imposed a much harsher punishment.

Pitino says the NCAA system is broken because it punishes the wrong people. He’s right. In most cases NCAA sanctions have mostly affected players who had nothing to do with the offending infraction. In the early 1990’s, for example, Chris Webber and several members of Michigan’s Fab Five accepted $600,000 from a booster involved in illegal gambling operations. The athletes involved should have been prosecuted, but instead, fearing severe sanctions by the NCAA, Michigan’s President ordered a self-imposed 2 year probation on the entire program. The probation only served to deny incoming players the chance to compete in a national tournament. In 1972, the NCAA placed North Carolina State University’s basketball program on a one year probation. The reason? When David Thompson was being recruited by the Wolfpack, he had played in a pick-up game with an assistant coach, and was allowed to stay in a campus dorm while attending a 1971 basketball camp. Thompson had no idea he was putting his future team in jeopardy.

Over the years, the list of NCAA infractions and sanctions has also involved such power house football programs as Oklahoma (several players found guilty of rape), Minnesota (the coach paid a school counselor to do homework for his players), and Miami (players paid for touchdowns and violent hits). And while the offenses range from benign to criminal, the fact remains that mainly innocent student athletes end up paying for the sins of others.

Increasingly, member institutions and their athletes are beginning to challenge the NCAA’s authority, from football players trying to unionize, to power conferences threatening to form their own national association. If the latter movement builds momentum, the NCAA might have to come down off its high horse rather than risk losing its billion dollar empire. In the meantime, I feel badly for Louisville basketball players, past and present. The former squad just wanted to look at naked ladies, and the current squad just wanted to look at a national championship trophy. Let this be a lesson to young men who want to play college ball – If you watch a girl take off her clothes, someone’s going to get screwed. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).