Sunday, March 15, 2015

March Illness — The NCAA & Syracuse University: A Plague On Both Their Houses

As the curtain drops on the warmup shows known as the basketball conference tournaments, we must gird our loins and other low places for March Madness beginning with Selection Sunday on March 15, 2015, and ending with the Championship Game on April 6, 2015. In that period, 68 men's Division I basketball teams will play in a single-elimination tournament in determine the 2015 National Champion. One of the tournament slots will be filled by the University of Notre Dame as the 2015 champion of the Atlantic Coast Conference. From the mountaintop of the ACC, we must go as low as you can go to find another member of the ACC, Syracuse University — once a perennial presence in the Big Dance. Now, Syracuse has been banned from March Madness because of the corruption of its basketball program. But, hold the phones — Joe Nocera, a critic of NCAA hypocrisy, finds corruption in the NCAA as well. If this is (fair & balanced) ethical policing, so be it.

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Syracuse, Boeheim And The NCAA
By Joe Nocera

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There are few organizations that can make a mountain out of a molehill like the NCAA. Believe it or not, the scathing report it issued last week, accusing Syracuse University and its basketball coach, Jim Boeheim, of a pattern of cheating, is a pretty good example.

I say “believe it or not” because to read about the report is to get the impression that Boeheim oversaw a program that was incorrigibly corrupt — a “decade-deep sewer,” as Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports characterized it.

This is surely the impression the NCAA hoped to convey. “Over the course of a decade,” the Committee on Infractions wrote, Syracuse committed violations including “academic fraud, instances of extra benefits,” cash payouts to players, etc. It accused Boeheim of failing to monitor his staff and claimed that the school showed a “lack of control over its athletic program.”

When the NCAA makes that last accusation, you can be sure it will be accompanied with stiff penalties. Among other things, Syracuse’s basketball team was put on probation for five years. It will lose some scholarships. Boeheim is to be suspended for part of next season, and he has been stripped of more than 100 wins.

I hold no brief for Boeheim. Coaches like him, who are bigger than the universities that employ them, are a problem for anyone who believes that a university’s academic mission is more important than its basketball team. But neither should the NCAA use its enforcement powers to cut such a coach down to size just because, well, it can. Especially when it hasn’t delivered the goods.

Boeheim appears to have made two terrible personnel moves. In 2005, he hired Stan Kissel to oversee the basketball team’s academic progress. And, in 2009, he recruited a 7-foot-tall Brazilian basketball player named Fab Melo. Kissel appears to have been a bad actor who monitored players’ class work by getting control of the athletes’ email accounts, which he then used to communicate with professors, supposedly without letting the professors know it was him.

Melo, a native Portuguese speaker who still had difficulty with English, was one of those athletes who simply didn’t belong on a university campus — yet another big problem with college sports that the NCAA is hardly in a position to remedy. Basketball was the only reason he was attending Syracuse.

Halfway through his sophomore season, Melo was declared ineligible because of poor grades. A professor agreed to allow him to submit a paper that might improve his grade and get him back on the court. According to the NCAA, Kissel, along with a receptionist, gave Melo “unauthorized assistance” with the paper, which he submitted the very next day. It appears likely, in fact, that one of them wrote it.

That’s a major transgression, not just of NCAA rules, but also of Syracuse’s academic standards. The university has not shirked from the seriousness of the offense, describing it as “wrongful conduct.” Both Kissel and the receptionist were let go long before the NCAA completed its investigation.

What else? Nearly a decade ago, three football players received course credit for an internship that they hadn’t earned. So now we’re up to four cases of academic fraud in 10 years, only one of which was committed by a basketball player. (By comparison, in the 2013-14 school year alone, Syracuse students racked up 184 charges of academic dishonesty.)

Also: Some players were involved in charity benefits without getting approval. A booster was given too many complimentary tickets. Years ago, three players were paid by a local YMCA for what the NCAA says was volunteer work, and at least one of the players insists was a summer job. “On one occasion in 2004,” the report actually says, a coach drove a Syracuse athlete 45 miles. Seriously?

Finally, although the NCAA believes that several other athletes committed academic fraud, it couldn’t bring that charge because the university, going through the same process it would with any other student, concluded that it didn’t have enough evidence. So instead, the NCAA tagged the athletes with receiving “extra benefits,” because, you know, something bad might have happened even if it couldn’t be proved. Actual proof has never mattered much in NCAA investigations.

I have dwelled on this report because it illustrates that despite the blows it has taken recently — in court and elsewhere — the NCAA remains not only a powerful institution, but one that is all too willing to abuse that power. To nail Syracuse’s basketball program — for who knows what reason — it had to pad one serious 2012 offense with a handful of extraneous, at times silly, allegations that had occurred, here and there, over the course of a decade.

Syracuse, concluded the NCAA, violated the association’s “fundamental core values.” Not really. Very soon, the annual March Madness college basketball tournament will be upon us. The NCAA will reap somewhere on the order of $800 million. Now, we’re talking core values. Ω

[Joseph "Joe" Nocera is a business columnist and an opinion columnist for The New York Times. Nocera is also a business commentator for NPR’s Weekend Edition. Before joining the Times in 2005, Nocera held editorial positions with the Washington Monthly, Newsweek, the New England Monthly and Texas Monthly. His 1994 book, A Piece of the Action: How the Middle Class Joined the Money Class, won the New York Public Library's 1995 Helen Bernstein Award for best non-fiction book of the year. Nocera also won three Gerald Loeb Awards (1993, 1996, 2008) and three John Hancock Awards (1983, 1984, 1991). And he was a 2007 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary. Nocera has also written Good Guys and Bad Guys: Behind the Scenes with the Saints and Scoundrels of American Business (and Everything in Between) (2008), and (with Bethany McLean) All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis (2010).Joe Nocera earned a B.S. in journalism from Boston University.]

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