LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the messy world of NCAA justice, here is where the scales tilt out of balance: in a Louisville locker room at their practice facility on a Friday afternoon, when two players are told their dream is dead.
In an abruptly scheduled team meeting at 12:30 p.m., Rick Pitino had the dreadful duty of telling his Cardinals that there will be no NCAA tournament for them in 2016. No Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. The university had pulled the plug on the postseason, a self-imposed sanction for violations Louisville now acknowledges were committed related to an infamous stripper scandal that came to light last October.
He watched them cry. He watched them encircle the two biggest victims in all this – blameless victims, graduate transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. Lee arrived from Drexel and Lewis from Cleveland State last summer, chasing One Shining Moment. They had never played in the NCAA tournament, and coming to perennial power Louisville would give them their chance in their final season of college eligibility.
They became the top two scorers on a Top 20 team that has won 18 of its first 22 games – a team that looked Final Four-caliber while beating No. 2-ranked North Carolina Monday night. An NCAA tournament berth, the goal of every Division I college basketball player, was assured. Lee and Lewis were going to the Big Dance at last.
Until Friday. Until that team meeting. Until their coach yanked the rug out, after he had it yanked from beneath him by Louisville president James Ramsey.
That's when their dream became collateral damage as Louisville seeks damage control in a scandal that is nowhere near closure.
At a press conference to announce the postseason ban, Pitino recounted that grim locker-room scene.
"Watching my players cry and hug each other, hug Damion and Trey," Pitino said, and his voice briefly broke. "Pretty difficult."
This is the way it works in college sports: coaches, staffers and athletes do the crime, and a later generation does the time. Whatever violations Louisville is copping to – and we don't know, because the school was resolutely vague Friday beyond acknowledging that some have occurred – happened before Lee and Lewis came to school here.
The book that brought this scandal to light, "Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen," by Louisville madam Katina Powell, alleges that former staffer Andre McGee paid for strippers to dance for and have sex with recruits and players between 2010 and 2014. Players who were involved in those interactions, or witnessed them, almost assuredly were given immunity from sanctions by the NCAA in exchange for their information.
Which leaves the current team to pay the price. And nobody is paying a bigger one than Lee and Lewis.
McGee resigned his job as an assistant at Missouri-Kansas City last October, three weeks after the book was published. That's a heavy price to pay, but the NCAA cannot punish someone who is not within its association anymore.
Pitino can be punished by the NCAA, and almost certainly will be should he continue to coach beyond this season. (The tension between he and Ramsey on a podium appropriately draped in black curtains Friday was palpable; it would not be a shock if this is the end of Pitino's run at Louisville.) But his protestations of ignorance about McGee's alleged setup with Powell are credible. He can be sanctioned for failure to monitor his staff, but it's highly improbable that he was complicit.
So the big hit falls on two guys who wouldn't know Andre McGee if he were standing next to them. It's completely unjust, of course, and they will be sympathetic figures for their nine remaining college games – it's all over come March 5, when Louisville plays at Virginia.
But while everyone rails at the unsatisfying nature of NCAA law and order, here's the reality: nobody is unfairly punished at schools that don't break the rules. If there isn't cheating going on, there aren't sanctions to hand out.
In the routine rush to bash the NCAA, a lot of people lose sight of that truth.
Rules were broken at Louisville. Maybe laws, too. (A Grand Jury investigation into the stripper scandal is ongoing.) The surprise Friday was the lack of evasive action by the school in dealing with it.
Self-imposed sanctions always are a pre-emptive strike aimed at lessening the inevitable hammer blow from the NCAA. But rarely, if ever, has a school voluntarily banned a team this good at this late a date in the season. Self-interest is often far more powerful than the public blather about doing the right thing.
Louisville has been to four straight Sweet 16s, including two Final Fours. It won the national championship in 2013. It was not difficult to foresee this team making a deep tournament run as well – until Friday.
"We believed it was in our grasp," Pitino said.
The NCAA investigative timeline would have allowed Louisville to play in this year's tourney without sanction. As was stated repeatedly Friday, this investigation is not over. No decisions could have been reached banning the Cardinals unless the school itself did so.
Ramsey made that call Thursday – without any consultation with Pitino, and seemingly little with influential athletic director Tom Jurich. When presented evidence that violations occurred, the school lived up to its October declaration that it would not shy away from accountability.
"We said we will own our problems," Jurich said. "We found out [Thursday] we have problems."
Many schools would have let this season play out, gone for the postseason glory, and then taken their chances with the NCAA later. (North Carolina, which has been under investigation forever due to systemic academic fraud, is taking that approach.) Louisville almost leapt at the chance to nuke itself.
While this can be seen as a forthright and fearless commitment to doing the right thing, it also raises speculation: what the NCAA has on the Cards must be really bad. But it's also a truism of investigations that the oath of silence from schools and the NCAA can let false accusations linger uncorrected in the public domain for months or years.
Unfortunately, we won't know for awhile what's fact or fiction in this tawdry saga. But clearly, Louisville acted with urgency and force for a reason.
The sad reality is that the biggest victims are among the most blameless. That's NCAA justice. If you don't want to see the unfairness of it all affect your campus, don't break the rules.