February 18, 2003
Crime and punishment, NCAA-style

Steve Smith of OffWing Opinion recently wrote of the passing of Michigan booster Ed Martin, whose payola to the Wolverine men's basketball teams of the late 80s have recently come to light:

Although I don't condone lying to a court of law, even if it's about something as trivial as receipt of booster payments or oral sex, the notion that Michigan would even consider sitting out the [NCAA] tournament this year for activities that date back to 1988, when several of the starters on this year's team were toddlers, is madness. Maybe the university thought back in October that the punishment (which also includes forfeiting hundreds of victories from the Fab Five era) might impress the NCAA, so it had nothing to lose. After all, no one expected Michigan to do anything this year, especially after they lost their first six games. Now that Michigan is tied for the conference lead, and the star witness against them is dead, they might reconsider that earlier decision.

The problem that I have with this line of argument is that it basically means you have to catch and punish offenders the same year that they sin, otherwise you are perforce punishing at least some kids who weren't there when the infractions occurred. In my opinion, NCAA sanctions for violations are designed to punish the school and its fans. It's regrettable that innocent players are also affected, but that can't be helped. Perhaps in cases like that the NCAA should allow players to transfer and play immediately, without having to sit out a year. That would not only give them an option, it would be an extra incentive to not cheat. Heck, let 'em transfer to any school that has been free of NCAA violations for at least five years, even if that puts the new school over the scholarship limit for that year. If that means Michigan has to scrounge for walkons or forfeit games because they don't have enough players, so be it. That would be an incentive to keep your nose clean.

It would help, of course, if the NCAA were first and foremost an organization that cared about amateur college athletics instead of the almighty dollar. Quite a few schools have committed infractions that were as severe as SMU did in the 1980s, but none have received the "death penalty" since Mustang football was shut down for two seasons, and it's unlikely any other program ever will. The money involved is too great, the conflicts of interest too inherent.

For what it's worth, I have no qualms about proposals to pay players. The only argument against it is the ideal of amateur athletics. I can't even type those words with a straight face any more. But let's not be naive and think that giving players a stipend will lessen the urge to cheat. Boosters like Ed Martin were about winning at whatever cost. They'll always be with us, and they'll find ways to make their influence felt, both legal (such as "cherry-wood lockers, plush carpets and million-dollar weight rooms") and not.

Anyway, I believe that the University of Michigan should be punished for Ed Martin's infractions, I believe that any Wolverine who feels that this is unfair to him should be allowed to immediately transfer, and I believe that until the Ed Martins of the world begin to fear the price of cheating, cheating will continue to be rampant. The best thing to happen would be for an Ed Martin's fellow fatcat alums to forever shun him for having cost their team an unacceptable loss of scholarships, money, players, postseason appearances, and prestige.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 18, 2003 to Other sports | TrackBack