This Saturday’s Final Four should be college basketball’s showcase. It features North Carolina and Syracuse, two of the game’s greatest programs.
The North Carolina Tar Heels have won five national titles, and rank near the top of just about every measure that matters. The legendary Dean Smith, one of the most respected coaches in the sport’s history, coached the Tar Heels for 36 years, including a guy named Michael Jordan.
Coach Smith created what they call "The Carolina Way," a shorthand for playing the game right, on and off the court.
Smith graduated 97% of his players.
Syracuse also ranks in the top five for most wins, and is riding a record 46-year streak of winning seasons.
But thanks to academic fraud at both schools, this heavyweight match-up has become the Corruption Classic, or the Scholastic Scandal Semi-Final.
The NCAA just finished an eight-year investigation of Syracuse’s program, which makes the Keystone Kops look like the Untouchables.
They determined Syracuse players had failed drug tests, been paid by boosters, and had coaches write their papers – but kept playing anyway.
For this, Syracuse had to erase 108 victories from, 2004 to 2012.
The NCAA also gave Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim a nine-game suspension. The punishment was incredibly light, but Boeheim -- who strikes some people as a whiner, but others as a cry-baby – is still complaining about it, blaming everybody but himself.
No sports reporters were surprised by any of it.
But we were stunned when we learned, soon after Dean Smith retired, North Carolina basketball players started taking bogus courses for phony grades --226 players, in fact, for almost two decades.
So what did the NCAA do? Nothing, of course.
Because half the students in those classes were not athletes, the NCAA claimed it was a university matter, not an NCAA one. So they left the mess for the university to clean up, but it was a big enough mess for the UNC chancellor to resign.
If making sure athletes are bona fide students is not a central mission of the NCAA, from its very inception in 1905, you have to wonder what exactly its central mission might be.
A principle is something you follow, even when it goes against your immediate self-interest, like allowing Nazis to march in Skokie, IL, to protect the principle of free speech. But the NCAA doesn’t follow any principle that runs against its immediate self-interest – even if it means unwittingly endangering its long-term survival.
But there wasn't much outrage over Carolina’s academic-fraud case, so the NCAA paid little price for ignoring it.
Likewise, the NCAA ignored the Baylor basketball case, in which one player killed his teammate, and the head coach lied about it.
The NCAA also ignored the Virginia lacrosse case, in which one player killed his girlfriend, who was a member of the women’s team.
In both cases, the NCAA paid little price for doing nothing.
When the NCAA does go after somebody, it’s never the athletic directors or the head coaches—whose money can buy topflight lawyers—but the assistant coaches, the low-ranking administrators, the poorly paid tutors, and the players, who have no power in this equation.
That’s when you realize: the NCAA is no longer an enforcement agency, but a marketing company. Once you grasp that, everything the NCAA does—and doesn’t do—suddenly makes a lot more sense.
And that brings us to the one bit of justice I can find in this Kafkaesque house of mirrors: During the NCAA’s biggest week of the year, instead of celebrating the showcase that is the Final Four, the NCAA will have to wallow in the mess that it created.
For once, that seems about right to me.