NCAA Needs to Rethink College Basketball Punishments After Louisville Scandal

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterFebruary 20, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 19:  Head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals reacts to their 69-73 loss to the Michigan Wolverines during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 19, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The NCAA took out its eraser Tuesday in bringing closure to the striptease scandal in Louisville.

The organization's Infractions Appeals Committee upheld a ruling that vacated the Cardinals' accomplishments from the 2011-12 season through the 2014-15 season, including the 2013 national title, a 2012 Final Four appearance and 123 victories.

Trophies will be returned. Banners will be taken down.

But will it have much impact?

Louisville deemed the penalty "draconian" in its appeal to the NCAA, but retroactively rewriting history only leads to hurt feelings and asterisks in a record book. It doesn't change behavior.

If the NCAA is truly after change, it needs to re-examine how it levies these punishments.

The NCAA's actions in this case are especially relevant if the FBI's investigation into the underbelly of college basketball is as widespread as Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports recently painted it to be.

"This goes a lot deeper in college basketball than four corrupt assistant coaches," a source who had been briefed on the details told him. "When this all comes out, Hall of Fame coaches should be scared, lottery picks won't be eligible to play and almost half of the 16 teams the NCAA showed on its initial NCAA tournament show this weekend should worry about their appearance being vacated."

College coaches should be most fearful of how the law will treat them in the coming months and years. But for the NCAA to clean up the sport, it needs to hit these basketball programs with future penalties rather than retroactive ones.

Louisville was able to handle this case on its terms.

When the university discovered in 2016 that violations had occurred, it self-imposed a postseason ban for that season and later added a scholarship reduction along with restrictions on recruiting travel and visits. The school also had to forfeit revenue-sharing money it received from the 2012-15 NCAA tournaments, which is a largely ineffective penalty. (The NCAA can try to hit schools in their wallets, but multimillion-dollar businesses usually find a way to survive.)

The postseason ban was a smart tactical move to ensure the program did not suffer in the long term. Had Louisville self-imposed a ban for a future season, it would have risked losing players on that team and likely would have suffered in recruiting.

Instead, the reduction of scholarships was the only real hit, and it wasn't crippling. Then-head coach Rick Pitino and his staff still had 12 scholarships at their disposal during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, which is plenty. They just had slightly less room for error.

Prior to his dismissal in October, Rick Pitino had helped Louisville right the ship following its one-year postseason ban.
Prior to his dismissal in October, Rick Pitino had helped Louisville right the ship following its one-year postseason ban.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The program appeared to be fine, bouncing back from its one-year postseason ban with a 25-9 record and a No. 2 seed in the 2017 NCAA tournament.

The future of the program is now on thinner ice since the Cards are wrapped up in the FBI probe, but Tuesday's ruling had nothing to do with that. Had Pitino steered clear of the FBI investigation, his program would have been positioned to continue an era of excellence—albeit one with an asterisk.

Do not be fooled by the verbiage in Louisville interim president Greg Postel's statement after the NCAA's ruling Tuesday. This was at least a small victory for the Cardinals.

The Louisville administration should feel grateful the NCAA hit the program retroactively rather than in the future. The NCAA can say Louisville is no longer the 2013 champ, but the parades have already occurred, the champagne has been sipped and the memories are still present. It will only no longer be recognized in an NCAA history book.

It's hard to say the penalty was not enough for the crime, as there wasn't much precedent for the activities that went down in Billy Minardi Hall, where former Louisville staffer Andre McGee reportedly paid for strippers and prostitutes for players and recruits.

But to hit these basketball programs where it hurts, the NCAA should penalize them in the future. Make it difficult for them to recruit. Significantly reduce the number of scholarships they have at their disposal. Make them aware the penalties will be even more severe if the coaches and staffs who broke the rules remain in place.

Taking away a handful of scholarships and limiting travel is not enough to clean up the sport. Louisville and Syracuse, which received similar penalties in 2015, have proved those restrictions are not crippling.

To scare these coaches straight, the NCAA needs to be heavy-handed in its punishments. What does that look like? Postseason bans over multiple seasons, a significant reduction in scholarships (six or seven instead of two or three) and taking an entire staff off the recruiting trail instead of just one coach. That would make coaches think twice about breaking the rules. 

The response to the FBI probe has been universally met among coaches, administrators and those who cover the sport with a belief that change is coming in college hoops. It hopefully will include edits to an archaic rulebook that has not adjusted to the times. It's time to share the wealth legally. 

But to eliminate cheating and future sleazy activity, the NCAA must put away its eraser and start penalizing programs where it hurts, not in a history book. 

       

C.J. Moore covers college basketball at the national level for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter, @CJMooreHoops.

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