The newest crisis management tactic in college athletics is so transparent even the most gullible fans shouldn’t be fooled.
Schools are self-imposing penalties that are designed to look severe but are actually attempts to avoid real punishment.
The latest to fall on a foam sword is Arizona, which announced Tuesday that it is self-imposing a one-year postseason ban on its men’s basketball team as a result of rules violations. That would be a lot more meaningful if the Wildcats weren’t a cut below their usual standards this season after losing three heralded freshmen to the 2020 NBA Draft.
This year’s Arizona team was projected to finish fifth in the Pac-12 in last month’s preseason poll and did not receive a single vote in the most recent AP Top 25. The Wildcats did beat Colorado on Monday night to improve to 7-1, but that’s their first victory of the season over an opponent in Ken Pomeroy’s top 100.
The timing of Arizona’s sudden show of contrition is suspicious because the program has been in the crosshairs for three-plus years now. The FBI and then NCAA investigated the Wildcats from 2017 until October, when the university received the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations.
Even if Arizona insists it was waiting for the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations to Act, the university has known it’s facing multiple level I violations for two months now. Maybe school administrators needed that time to decide how to respond. Or maybe Arizona realized that waiting until late December to announce a postseason ban drastically reduced the possibility of an exodus of players currently enrolled.
While Arizona was far from a shoo-in to make the NCAA tournament this upcoming March, the Wildcats’ self-imposed postseason ban isn’t the most egregious in recent memory. Other programs have slapped themselves on the wrist during lesser seasons in an effort to stave off future penalties for teams better equipped for deep postseason runs.
On February 4, 2015, Syracuse removed itself from contention for the following month’s NCAA tournament, not that the Orange were likely to make it anyway. Most mock brackets at the time did not include Jim Boeheim’s team, which went on to finish that season with an 18-13 record.
The timing of Auburn’s self-imposed postseason ban last month was equally cynical with the Tigers headed for a rebuilding season. Not only did they lose their six best players from last season’s 25-6 team, their top incoming freshman’s eligibility was also under investigation.
Most laughable of all was LSU football, which waited until early December to add a bowl ban to other previously announced self-imposed penalties. The Tigers were 3-5 at the time after an unusually high number of player opt-outs.
In each of these cases, the schools knew they were on the hook for major violations. If a postseason ban was inevitable, the goal was to administer it on their own terms, to act like they were taking their mistakes seriously and to hoodwink the NCAA infractions committee into not punishing them any further.
The NCAA has sometimes fallen for this act in the past. It can’t do so any longer. That would only underscore the message that it pays to cheat in college athletics, that even the few programs who get caught are able to skirt meaningful punishment.
Arizona was one of the many schools ensnared by the federal probe into college basketball corruption. In announcing its postseason ban on Tuesday, the university was careful not to admit any wrongdoing by head coach Sean Miller. Arizona’s statement instead placed the blame on “certain former members of the MBB staff” who “displayed serious lapses in judgment and a departure from the University’s expectation of honest and ethical behavior.”
Former Arizona assistant coach Emmanuel “Book” Richardson served three months in federal prison after pleading guilty to accepting $20,000 in bribes for the purpose of steering players to certain agents. The university also suspended former assistant coach Mark Phelps over alleged rules violations and did not renew his contract.
Arizona’s statement described the postseason ban as a means of “serving the best long-term interests of the University and the Men’s Basketball program.” Left largely unmentioned were the innocent victims in all this: the current Wildcats players.
The worst aspect of in-season postseason bans is that they highlight everything that is wrong with NCAA justice. Coaches, athletes or boosters commit the crime, but all too often a future generation of players are the ones doing the time.
At least when the NCAA hands down a postseason ban during the offseason, current players have the option to transfer to another school that is eligible for the Big Dance. But with these in-season, self-imposed bans, players are stuck by the time their school announces it is removing itself from NCAA tournament contention.
Almost five years ago, Louisville pulled the plug on an 18-4 season in hopes of reducing the damage from its infamous stripper scandal. As a result, the dreams of graduate transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis were reduced to collateral damage.
Lee arrived from Drexel and Lewis from Cleveland State eager to chase their One Shining Moment. They were the leading scorers on a team that had just beaten second-ranked North Carolina the night before the postseason ban was announced.
All of Arizona’s players at least will have the option to return to school next season with the NCAA not counting this year against athletes’ college eligibility. Same with the basketball players at Auburn and the football players at LSU.
Still, the NCAA needs to send a message that they won’t accept postseason bans after the season begins, that teams who attempt this aren’t helping their own cause.
These postseason bans aren’t merely self-imposed. They’re more self-serving than anything else.
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