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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

NCAA Needs to Aim Higher in Institution

March 16, 2003|Sally Jenkins | Washington Post

The NCAA always penalizes downward, instead of in the direction it should -- all the way to the top. Invariably, when there is a scandal, those most punished are on the lowest rung, a bunch of ballplayers who had nothing to do with it. If the NCAA really wants to clean itself up, it should go after those who are most accountable for scandals: college presidents.

The latest example comes at Georgia, where some of the Bulldogs have been taking a real brainteaser of a class called "Coaching Strategies in Basketball," for credit. The Bulldogs have sheepishly withdrawn from the Southeastern and the NCAA tournaments because of academic fraud. It seems Coach Jim Harrick's son, assistant Jim Harrick Jr., taught the bogus class to three players and gave one of them an A, even though he never attended.

Here's what should happen: The NCAA should threaten to sanction Georgia unless it fires university President Michael Adams for allowing "Coaching Strategies in Basketball" to be entered into a college curriculum, and for hiring Harrick in the first place. Adams handpicked Harrick, his old pal, despite that Harrick has left skunk fumes from one coast to the other: at Rhode Island, he departed amid evidence of sexual harassment and grade tampering, and at UCLA, he was fired for recruiting irregularities and expense account fraud. Adams also relaxed Georgia's nepotism policy so that Harrick could hire his son.

Instead, here is the more likely scenario: Adams probably will stay on; Harrick, who is on paid suspension, might be fired along with his son (but will land a job at another school), and Georgia will continue specious grading practices and replace those guilty players ruled ineligible. The NCAA will investigate and will rightly sanction players guilty of academic fraud, players incidentally chose Harrick as much as Georgia did. But in the longer term, the innocent players will be left behind to suffer the effects of sanctions, while the bigger fish distance themselves politically or are long gone.

It's too easy to stigmatize and criminalize players while officials and administrators sitting in executive chairs are just as culpable, and sometimes more so.

This is what the NCAA does to imitate discipline, in place of enacting substantial reforms. The problems is that member schools are the NCAA, and they make and administer the rules. Governance is therefore determined by suspicion and paranoia that someone might gain a competitive edge, rather than actual ethics. The motive for discipline is nominal at best: The NCAA is interested in purity, as a commercial selling point for the sake of TV revenue, but they're far more interested in the appearance of it than the actuality. So misplaced punishments seep downward, because the people at the top certainly don't want it at their level -- what they want is academic cover for hiring a Harrick, a two-time loser who has nevertheless taken three schools to the NCAA tournament and gotten them a cut of that $1-billion CBS television rights fee.

A substantive reform would be for the NCAA to call for a three-strike hiring ban for chronic offenders, so that presidents operating strictly on profit motive can't hire people such as Harrick and call them teachers. It will never happen. This is exactly the sort of thing NCAA representatives talk about doing but don't. Why? Because colleges are the NCAA.

If the NCAA is going to run itself as a for-profit cartel, which in fact it is, then college presidents should be held by their trustees to standards similar to CEOs, with accountability at the top.

As it is now, here's the real primer for Coaching Strategies in Basketball: (1) hire the worst cheat you can find, (2) assemble a team by any means possible, by hook and by crook, and (3) then have them take idiotic classes such as Coaching Strategies in Basketball.

Instead, I read where NCAA President Myles Brand is patting himself on the back because the "system" is working, and he cites as evidence the fact that scandal-ridden schools such as Georgia and St Bonaventure have decided to voluntarily opt out of postseason play.

"I think we are starting to see a very important trend," he says. "I think the system is working, and I think in each of the situations

Brand couldn't be more wrong. There is only one instance in which the appropriate action was taken: at St. Bonaventure, where the board of trustees demanded the resignation of its university president, Robert Wickenheiser. The president personally approved the admission of a junior college transfer who had only a welding certificate.

What, he presumably asked himself, is so wrong with a welding certificate if the kid can really weld?

Did the Bonnies say: "Hey, Coach, we've got a good point guard, a shot-blocking center and some zone-busting shooters on the perimeter, but what we really need is a welder?"

No. The president said it. And for once, the big guy took it in the neck.

So pardon me if, at this moment in NCAA history, I don't see Myles Brand as a beacon of integrity, seeing as how he is a, you know, university president. I don't trust anyone who holds that title anymore, not since most of them became glad-handing fundraisers and for-profit phonies, who preach academics with one hand and grab at the shrimp with the other. Brand's designated job is to defend the member institutions and lay the blame at the wrong doors.

Oddly, one of the few people in college basketball who demonstrated an actual principle this week was Bob Knight. Brand made his reputation in the NCAA by firing Knight at Indiana for his lousy temper. But this week, Knight looks like the man of more integrity, for refusing to accept his $250,000 base salary at Texas Tech, when the team didn't perform up to his expectations.

Knight said he was disappointed in himself as a teacher.

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