The Final Four should be college basketball's showcase. This Saturday's second game 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 percent of his players.
Syracuse also ranks in the top five for most wins, and is riding a national 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 Semifinal.
The NCAA just finished an eight-year investigation of Syracuse's program, which makes the Keystone Kops look like the Untouchables. It determined Syracuse players had failed drug tests, been paid by boosters and had coaches write their papers -- but they kept playing anyway. For this, Syracuse had to erase 108 victories from, 2004 to 2012, which is always an unsatisfying penalty for all involved. Did any of those losing teams celebrate when the NCAA told them they really hadn't lost?
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: The assistant coaches, the players, the NCAA, and, as always, the media. But he, of course, had no idea any of this was going on.
No one I know who covers college sports was surprised by any of it. But we were stunned to learn that hundreds of University of North Carolina football and basketball players had availed themselves of either "aberrant" or "irregularly" taught courses, defined by ESPN.com as those which entailed "unauthorized grade changes, forged faculty signatures on grade rolls and limited or no class time." In fact, we now know some 226 North Carolina basketball players took these bogus courses for phony grades, for almost two decades.
So what has the NCAA done? Almost nothing, of course -- and it has being doing it for years. The NCAA argued that, because half the students in those classes were not athletes, it was a university matter, not an NCAA one. So it left the mess for the university to clean up. But it was a big enough mess for the UNC chancellor to resign over it.
To make any sense of these situations, you have to understand how the NCAA works -- or doesn't, as is often the case. The key for me was learning that the NCAA was created in 1905 to police college athletics, but soon after the 1979 championship game, featuring Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, it realized there was money to be made -- big money -- so it became saloonkeeper, too.
If you can't guess which of those two jobs it is more passionate about, you need only heed Deep Throat's maxim: Follow the money. Of the NCAA's $777 million budget in 2012, only 1 percent of it was earmarked for enforcement, which hardly serves as an endorsement for its priorities, or its efficacy in keeping college sports clean. It's all the more revealing to study just where the NCAA spends its relatively paltry resources for investigations.
Whenever a college athletic program gets itself in trouble with the law, the NCAA usually steers clear, sticking to worrying about how many minutes a week student-athletes are allowed to stretch, the distance they can travel in a car with an alumnus, and whether they are allowed to put cream cheese or jam on their free breakfast bagel. (Until recently, they were not.)
In the summer of 2003, Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy disappeared. During the investigation, head coach Dave Bliss portrayed Dennehy as a drug dealer to explain how the player might have paid his tuition without a scholarship. But authorities soon discovered teammate Carlton Dotson had shot and killed Dennehy. The NCAA got involved only in those aspects of the case that triggered its rules on paying players and the like, but left the legal matters for law enforcement.
Likewise, the NCAA stayed out of the University of Virginia tragedy, in which George Huguely V murdered his girlfriend, fellow lacrosse player Yeardley Love. In both situations, the NCAA left the criminal investigations to the legal authorities -- and wisely so. To do otherwise would have been tantamount to assigning a serial-murder case to a meter reader.
Because there wasn't much public outrage in either case, the NCAA paid little price for doing nothing. But when public outrage rises, the NCAA takes action -- whether it should or not.
This explains its decision to give the Penn State athletic program penalties that NCAA president Mark Emmert said might be considered "greater than any other seen in NCAA history." Most experts believed they were second only to the infamous "death penalty" delivered to Southern Methodist University, from which the Mustangs have still not fully recovered three decades later. As ghastly as Sandusky’s crimes were (including the possibility of a cover-up by university leaders, which is still being investigated) these are serious criminal matters, better suited for the FBI than the NCAA. But the country was understandably apoplectic, at a time when criticism of college athletics and the NCAA was reaching a fever pitch.
The NCAA's decision to suspend its own convoluted due process, and rely entirely on a report Penn State itself had commissioned to come up with sweeping sanctions, in just nine days, went a long way toward quieting those critics, at least for a time. It also demonstrated that the NCAA has no principle it won't jettison for the purpose of appearances.
From the NCAA's point of view, what is the difference between Carlton Dotson, George Huguely V and Jerry Sandusky? The public was furious about Sandusky, so the NCAA took action.
The NCAA might ignore murder, if the public doesn't care about it, but when it comes to misdemeanors, the NCAA is hell on wheels -- especially if those misdemeanors draw media scrutiny. Thus, when the Detroit Free Press ran a big, Sunday-front-page story six days before the 2009 season opener, alleging that the storied Michigan football program had blown past the limits for practice -- sparking stories in almost every national media outlet -- the NCAA spent 14 months, and cost the university and former head coach Rich Rodriguez about a million dollars in legal fees, to determine that, yes, the Wolverines had unwittingly exceeded the NCAA rules by performing stretching exercises an average of fifteen minutes more per week than the rules allowed.
In the UNC case, after public outrage slowly rose to the NCAA's threshold for taking action, years after the story first surfaced, it reluctantly started another plodding investigation, which it assures us will soon be complete. We can be confident than UNC will receive a punishment even more ridiculous than Coach Boeheim's -- but I wouldn't be surprised if Boeheim whines about that, too. For some reason.
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, Illinois, a town with a significant Jewish population, 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.
On the rare occasions when the NCAA does go after someone, as Taylor Branch pointed out in his seminal piece in The Atlantic, it typically focuses its "public censure on powerless scapegoats." Not the athletic directors or the head coaches -- whose millions can buy teams of topflight lawyers -- but the assistant coaches, the low-ranking administrators, the poorly paid tutors and the players.
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's created.
For once, that seems about right to me.
-- John U. Bacon is the author of four New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football was published in September. He gives weekly commentary on Michigan Radio, teaches at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and speaks nationwide on leadership and diversity. Learn more at JohnUBacon.com, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.