Syracuse drug investigation shows the NCAA is yet again playing charades

Here’s guessing you didn’t care too much that 10 Syracuse basketball players tested positive for banned substances over the past decade. I know I didn’t.

You know who claims they did care? Try Syracuse and the NCAA, of which the university is a prominent and powerful member.

Those two cared so much they wrote extensive policies banning not just performance-enhancing drugs but the kind of recreational ones that are all over nearly every campus in America. Then they wrote additional rules requiring schools to obey those policies.

Jim Boeheim initially told Yahoo! Sports he didn't know anything about a drug-testing investigation at Syracuse.
(Getty Images)

They shared all of that with the public, just one additional piece in a longstanding marketing plan to sell the country on the purity and wholesomeness of intercollegiate athletics.

Yes, yes, you can feel good about college sports everyone, unlike that drug-infested, cutthroat, unethical NBA, which, naturally, has its own drug policy even though there can’t possibly be a fan naïve enough to think there isn’t some pot smoked in that league.

It turns out no one wants to admit the truth. Well, maybe they should. All of them.

The truth is Syracuse didn’t give a damn that some of its players might have done some drugs. Public policy is one thing. Private actions are another, and as Yahoo! Sports’ Charles Robinson and Pat Forde reported Monday, “the program was awash in positive drug tests and, in many cases, failed to adhere to its internal drug policy while playing ineligible players.”

[Sources: Syracuse repeatedly violated internal drug policy ]

The school confirmed as much later, saying it has turned over its failures to the NCAA.

“We self-reported issues with drug testing to the NCAA, and there is currently an ongoing inquiry,” Kevin Quinn, senior vice president for public affairs, said in a statement.

The “issue” with the drug test might be that there is a drug test at all.

As a general rule, colleges don’t drug test their theater departments, their chemistry departments or their (ahem) journalism departments. They don’t even drug test the coaching staff, trainers, athletic administrators, professors, presidents or board of trustees.

Of course, they don’t have billion-dollar broadcast deals with TV networks using those particular people. The first thing colleges did was sell everyone on the chastity of college sports. Then they sold a lot of advertising.

These scandals and investigations occur over and over, and the critics always sound the same note: This seems minor; why not go after the NCAA itself?

That’s exactly the sleight of hand the NCAA is trying to play. The NCAA isn’t a bunch of worker bees in that brick office in Indianapolis.

Syracuse is the NCAA. Jim Boeheim is the NCAA. Each school is the NCAA. They make the rules and cash the checks. This drug policy is the NCAA. Same with preventing players from receiving “extra benefits,” or acting like agents are a plague or condemning boosters who give directly to the athletes rather than the school itself.

All of it allows the NCAA to maintain the illusion that it should be classified as amateur sports – and thus individual athletic departments are able to avoid paying players and taxes. That NCAA rule book is worth billions of dollars. It allows everyone in power to get a huge contract, two complimentary cars and a country-club membership.

[ Video: Will drug allegations hurt Syracuse hoops? ]

The NCAA will fall when the public is able to open its eyes. They need to free themselves from the NCAA tunnel vision that something such as the Syracuse story is about what the possible punishment might be. They need to think that if school after school keeps violating the rules, maybe it says more about the rules than the schools. Then they need to ask why those same schools keep writing more rules.

They need to understand what each one of these scandals is really about: not some unnamed Syracuse players, but one more brick falling in the NCAA’s charade.

It shouldn’t be that confusing.

How much did Syracuse really care about its drug policy? First, they allegedly ignored it and played the guys anyway. Then, after the games were won and the money counted, they decided to report their failures. That was “several months ago,” a NCAA statement said.

That was such a big, memorable decision that when asked about it Monday, coach Jim Boeheim declared, “I don’t know anything about it.”

I’m guessing Boeheim probably did know something about it, but he thought it was so stupid and pointless that he simply didn’t care to remember. Or care to care.

The NCAA and its members have profited from billion-dollar TV deals.
(Getty Images)

Boeheim always has been one of the most honest college coaches, which may sound funny. His decades of eye rolls at various flare-ups always have carried the same meaning: You don’t actually believe this foolishness, do you?

You’ll get the same private reaction from nearly everyone in the game.

College sports would be a better place if that was the public dialogue and it resulted in a more honest rulebook and a fairer system for the players. There is no one outraged here. There is no school (well, maybe BYU) that thinks this couldn’t happen on its team. There is no school (well, maybe BYU) that hasn’t either ignored its drug policy or strongly considered ignoring it.

[ Robinson on YSR: 10 Syracuse players tested positive since 2001 ]

And you’d get fairly long odds on there being a single NCAA champion that was clean in the past, what, 40, 50 years? Totally, completely clean – drugs, academics, amateurism, etc.

Over the past few years, the NCAA has been overrun by scandals that show its own people – often high-ranking people – willfully violating the rule book they wrote themselves for their own benefit.

Jim Tressel knowingly played players who likely would’ve been ineligible. Jim Calhoun used an agent to work a recruit. John Blake was both an assistant football coach and an employee of a sports agency. Kansas had a bunch of employees double-dealing basketball tickets like they owned the team. Chip Kelly paid a scouting service for no written scouting reports. Miami had assistant coaches bringing players and recruits over to the home of a booster, who simultaneously plied players with “extra benefits” and funded a sports agency.

On and on and on. And on. Each one bringing a little more exposure for what this is truly about: a never-ending con.

The Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s “Fifth Estate,” its serious investigative program, recently did an excellent report on Toronto youth basketball coach Ro Russell, who has shuttled dozens of players to U.S. colleges.

The show talked about all the underhanded angles: academic fraud, under-the-table payments, layers and layers of lies. It never ends because no one really wants it to. This one is notable for its particularly comical parts, including Russell’s number appearing more than 2,100 times in a nearly four-year period on the cell phone bill of a Texas assistant (where many of Russell’s players sign).

[ Robinson on YSR: The story is Syracuse’s lack of institutional action ]

And then there’s the ultimate, when the CBC, unable to get Russell to call them, tries to ambush him for the classic “gotcha!” interview after a high school game. The big moment, though, gets interrupted when another college assistant comes up to shake Russell’s hand and asks him to please return his calls.

They ought to set that to the Final Four music.

There are incredible accomplishments happening in college athletics. There are wonderful opportunities, terrific memories, mentorships and relationships. It’s great. It can be really, really great. And that ought to be enough.

But the crackdown continues on anyone straying outside a carefully crafted definition of amateurism, the continued duplicity of lifestyle rules, the mock outrage at boosters engaging with recruits and players. It’s as bothersome as it is unnecessary.

Even the coaches and administrators know that. Or at least keep proving it through their actions, probably because they didn’t respect the rules in the first place.

So why do we still have them?

Who is the NCAA fooling – except everyone who can’t realize what keeps getting exposed here.

Other investigation coverage by Yahoo! Sports:
Miami booster spells out illicit benefits to players
Ex-USC RB Reggie Bush, basketball star violated NCAA rules
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel knew of players’ violations
Former Vols aide funded airfare payment for Seastrunk

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Mar 5, 2012