It's March, which can only mean one thing…March Madness! Two days prior to this year's NCAA tournament, Syracuse's Fab Melo was ruled academically ineligible. Melo had violated the team's academic policy for the second time this season and was no longer allowed to participate in the tournament. Following Syracuse's first round win, opponent Kansas State's Jamar Samuels was ruled ineligible for receiving $200 in improper benefits. Today, recurring issues surrounding player recruiting, academics, and improper benefits beg the question – who is to blame?
First, the NCAA must examine the player’s responsibility. Some argue players should be paid as compensation for all the money the players bring to the school via athletics. Scholarships aside, the players should not receive any additional benefits. The STUDENT-athletes are exactly that; students first. Granted some declare for the pros after a season and are only attending college because of the NBA required one year term, but should still be held out as students. Allowing schools to "pay for play" creates a slippery slope the NCAA cannot afford. Schools would become bidding organizations encouraging players to play for schools offering the highest monetary bid. Additionally, wealthier schools that value athletics would spend more money recruiting players, which could cause other school related programs to suffer.
While the NCAA has made an esteemed effort to enforce its regulations, players still seem to slip through the cracks. Worse still, those found guilty of violations tend to be the players punished rather than the entire organization or the coaches. Instead, the NCAA needs to hold all violators responsible to incrementally increasing punishments.
Booster programs have served as a major inconvenience for NCAA to regulate. A booster is an enthusiastic supporter that represents an interest of a player or program. For example: parents, high school coaches, college coaches, college administration, etc. Universities as a whole are held accountable for the actions of its booster community.
The most recognized NCAA discipline against an institution was the University of Michigan’s “Fab Five,” who were punished for receiving improper benefits throughout the season and recruitment. In 2003, the NCAA officially sanctioned Michigan to four years probation, removed one scholarship a year for the next four years, and barred Michigan from 2003 postseason play. Additionally, those involved were stripped of their Final Four appearance and Runner-Up tournament honors.
More recently, the 2008 University of Memphis basketball team forfeited their NCAA record 38 victories, Final Four appearance and Runner-Up honors. Additionally, the Memphis basketball program was on probation for the next two seasons.
Although Memphis was punished for their involvement, Coach John Calipari faced no repercussions. Memphis was not Calipari’s first involvement with NCAA sanctions. Back in 1996, Calipari, then coaching University of Massachusetts, had their Final Four appearance vacated for improper player benefits. However, the decision was not rendered until Calipari had left UMass for the NBA. Calipari, now coaching the University of Kentucky, has never received NCAA sanction.
Just two seasons ago, Calipari's highly recruited star point guard, Eric Bledsoe, was accused of receiving improper benefits and was suspected of having insufficient academic credentials for enrollment. One cannot help but wonder whether Calipari had knowledge of recruiting violations with his programs. It may be that Calipari has no direct involvement in any of the violations, but seems curious that programs with no history or pattern of violations suddenly develop problems when Calipari becomes involved. It seems only reasonable to question whether Calipari creates or fosters an environment where violations can occur. It is possible that boosters, captivated by Calipari’s success, become overzealous. Likewise, it is possible that the universities with whom Calipari associates have made unconscious decisions to go for results regardless of consequences.
Nonetheless, where there is smoke there is generally fire. Calipari has twice been Head Coach of a basketball organization that has violated NCAA regulations. Twice, Calipari has walked free from the NCAA with no repercussions. Although the universities were punished, some responsibility must also rest with the coaches. Legally, ignorance does not serve as an excuse. Applying the same logic; even if Calipari did not directly violate NCAA regulations, he likely at least had imputed knowledge of the improper benefits players were receiving.
Ultimately, no one individual solely deserves blame. However, the NCAA has harshly punished universities and players, but has yet to adequately punish coaches. The NCAA needs to punish coaching violators and mandate sanctions to follow the coaches. Although, the NCAA has recently taken stronger action against coaches caught in the act while still employed at their respective schools; see Jim Calhoun, Kelvin Sampson, Bruce Pearl; Calipari is yet to be disciplined due to his “fight and flight” mentality. Allowing coaches to walk free of any alleged liability not only fails to discourage repeat offenders, but encourages coaches to abandon and pass off all liability to the universities.
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