Bilas misfires on Boeheim and the NCAA (yes, I am actually partially kinda sorta defending the NCAA)

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Jay Bilas has been a trenchant, welcome and steadfast critic of the bogus collegiate model. He’s sharpened his attack on the NCAA in recent years relentlessly and cogently hammering away at the hypocrisy inherent in the association’s bogus conception of amateurism.

In the case of the NCAA’s punishment of Syracuse University and Jim Boeheim, however, his criticisms are, in part, off base. On Mike and Mike this morning, Bilas said the NCAA was wrong to single out Jim Boeheim, since the problems at Syracuse are systemic, and not attributable to one individual. Bilas broadened this into a larger lament about the singling out of coaches for punishment when athletic programs run afoul of NCAA rules and argued that if coaches could be punished for wrongdoing, why couldn’t athletic directors and university presidents be punished for those same violations? As Bilas tells it, “the coaches are going to be responsible for everything…whether that’s fair or not.” In Bilas’ telling, the NCAA is turning the coach into an “all-powerful, svengali-like figure” and, in so doing, is letting everyone else who might be responsible off the hook. Bilas also complained that the NCAA was engaged in nothing more than “public shaming,” a spectacle that reduced a more complex and nuanced reality into a simple morality tale. Bilas also said that people don’t know what this is about, because the NCAA doesn’t provide any details, instead using as a crutch buzzwords and phrases like “lack of control” and “failure to monitor” and “atmosphere of compliance” that paint a broad-strokes and ultimately inscrutable portrait of what really happened.  In sum, Bilas insisted, administrators who are “making a ton of money” get to have it both ways – they benefit from the enterprise when things are going well, and they get to wash their hands of it, when a program gets dinged by Indianapolis.

In one big picture sense, Bilas is right. It is true that NCAA punishments of individual schools are not going to change the fundamental nature of college athletics. The imperative in the big-time programs to win and generate revenue will always be at odds with the core academic missions of the schools that house them and the NCAA’s pretense for maintaining amateurism – that big-time sports is, first and foremost, an educational activity – will forever be a lie. Vacating wins, removing banners, imposing show-cause penalties on coaches, revoking scholarships – none of that will change the underlying realities.

There is a premise, though, to Bilas’ criticisms that is misguided. That premise is that the system – including the system of punishments – is somehow unfair to the Jim Boeheims of the world. And Bilas is playing fast and loose with some facts to try to make it so.

On the micro level, it would be hard to argue in this case that the NCAA failed to provide details. In fact, it produced a quite interesting 94-page report replete with details about some of the rule-breaking that Syracuse engaged in. More broadly, maybe there shouldn’t be an NCAA at all, and therefore no rules to violate. But you probably won’t find Jim Boeheim waving that flag. After all, Boeheim makes about two million dollars a year because of a collegiate model that engages in a radical price-fixing scheme for labor, off of which Boeheim profits so handsomely. Indeed, no one at Syracuse makes more money than Boeheim. In turn, Boeheim, has termed pay-for play the “most idiotic suggestion of all time.” Of all the beneficiaries of this system, elite coaches are undeniably at the top of the list of winners. Here, Bilas’ rant about administrators who make a ton of money seems especially disingenuous.

There is also no way to argue that the university chancellor, for example, should be held responsible for rule-breaking in the basketball program to the same extent as Boeheim. There are over 20,000 students at Syracuse and dozens of departments. Boeheim, by contrast, is responsible for a program that has about 15 participants at any one time and, as I’ve discussed before in other contexts, is going into the homes of the parents of those participants to assure them that he takes full responsibility for their academic and athletic experience while in school.

To be clear, this is not to argue that administrators, including athletic directors and others with oversight responsibility should escape all accountability for misconduct on their watch (this Sally Jenkins piece zeroes in on what administrative collusion looked like in the Syracuse case. The Wainstein report, of course, captured some of those dynamics at UNC. But contra Bilas’ intimations, some of those administrators may lose their jobs at ‘Cuse, just as some already have at UNC. A half-season suspension for Boeheim is pretty light in that context). Nor is it to defend the NCAA broadly. If you want to argue that the NCAA should have no authority to monitor schools, I won’t argue in the abstract. But given the existing structure of college athletics, and the degree to which guys like Boeheim both benefit from it and insist on its perpetuation in more or less its current form, you’ll get no sympathy from me about the fairness of the penalties the NCAA has meted out to Boeheim. Ultimately, the suggestion that Boeheim is in no better position or no more responsible for oversight of his program than the university president is simply absurd.

One more note. Syracuse’s self-punishment, which it announced before the NCAA issued its penalties, is just bullshit. The school agreed to sit out the post-season this year, starting with the ACC tournament. As many have pointed out, this unfairly punishes current players who bear no responsibility for the violations at Syracuse. And cynics have noted that there was little harm in the self-imposed ban – except for the players – since the Orangemen were suffering through a sub-par year anyway. What I don’t understand is why the university couldn’t have banned Boeheim from the postseason, and allowed the kids to play under an assistant. I know such a notion would never receive serious consideration, but why the current players need to go down with a ship that Boeheim, but not they, had a hand in sinking is a lot more unfair than whatever treatment Coach is getting.

Update: Three experts on NCAA enforcement, including David Ridpath and Gerald Gurney, argue here that Boeheim was clearly culpable for what happened at Syracuse. Ridpath notes that the university’s defense of the coach follows standard operating procedure: “The response by a university is usually to circle the wagons and protect the most popular person on campus, which is usually the celebrity coach, as long as they are winning,” Ridpath said. “I’ve got to think Jim Boeheim will be fine. Anyone else is collateral damage.” But as Gurney notes, the defenses are pretty weak in this case: “I find the protestations of Jim Boeheim to be quite weak,” Gurney said. “He is responsible for the athletes he recruits and their lack of preparedness for college. He is responsible for his staff. He is responsible for the marching orders given to his director of basketball operations. He needs to stop whining, man up and take responsibility. He needs to admit that he screwed up.”

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