WASHINGTON—With America's elite college football teams closing in on the playoffs to determine a national champion and a new race to basketball's March Madness about to begin, the burning question should be who is in charge of keeping the huge fortune the two events produce out of the hands of cheaters?
For more than three quarters of a century, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has ruled major college sports with an iron fist, clamping down on any hint of scandal that might taint the association and its member schools and damage the money flow.
At times, the NCAA's legendary gum shoe committee has seemed to have taken its duty to preserve purity to the point of absurdity, penalizing its members for trivial infractions of its Byzantine book of rules—so large now, it has become a lawyer's dream or nightmare, whichever side you're on. You can't give that recruit a baseball cap, T-shirt, etc., or your best player is suspended for appearing fully clothed on a calendar that was being sold for charity by a sorority, which actually occurred.
Often it seemed to observers that there was an unholy selectivity to the association's punishments. In other words, schools that were the most successful in pursuit of records and the revenue they produce were somehow less likely to be sanctioned. It has taken a long time for the University of Louisville and its famous former basketball coach, Rick Pitino, to fall, although his program—and his personal indiscretions—were common knowledge for years.
The shadow of scandal and prosecution now hovers over the new basketball season.
The late UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, once said only half in jest, "that the NCAA is so mad at Kentucky it probably will tack another two years (sanctions) on Cleveland State."
While there has been no solid proof to back up these allegations of favoritism, there obviously is plenty of circumstantial evidence. And the NCAA's decision not to pursue a horrendous breach of academic propriety by the University of North Carolina almost puts a rubber stamp of authenticity to the claims.
By not doing so, any credibility the governing body has left may have been lost forever. If you are unaware, UNC had given academic credit to favored groups for what it at one time admitted was a phony course. While some of those who took the non-existent course or courses weren't athletes, at least 50 percent to 60 percent were—including football and basketball stars. The excuse the NCAA gave with a straight face was that since there were non-athletes also benefiting, discipline was not an alternative (or some such inane jibber jabber) and that since the school told the NCAA that it was an accredited course telling a national accreditation committee that it wasn't, the NCAA had no jurisdiction. Meanwhile the accreditation folks reportedly have reopened their investigation.
By the way, UNC is again listed in preseason basketball polls as expected to be one of the nation's top 10 programs with a head start on another March triumph. Ca-Ching!
Is Walter Byers—the Torquemada who built the NCAA and often used a sledgehammer to slap a wrist—whirring in his grave? Probably. Byers was the unforgiving crusader and self-appointed arbiter of all things legitimate and ethical in the world of big-time college athletics. Back in the 1950s he was the most feared name in sports. Well, whirl away, Walter. Your beloved institution, which you even came to see was out of hand, has gone from bad to "badder" as money considerations increasingly drive the college sports engine. UNC's reputation as the oldest public university in the nation and certainly one of its best academically has been severely tarnished thanks to the relentless, Pulitzer prize-deserving reporting of the Raleigh News and Observer.
I was instantly reminded of an incident a number of years ago when I found myself at a white-tie Washington function with several other people who had discovered a place where a TV was showing a regional final of the basketball tournament that included UNC. We were all strangers, but I said to no one in particular that I would feel better about the whole thing when the NCAA sanctions UNC, even then just a little too good every year to be on the right side of legitimacy.
"I certainly hope that doesn't happen," the man standing next to me said. "I'm the governor of North Carolina."
Well, rest easy, sir. It hasn't.