Louisville's escort scandal shows how low college sports can go


In the long history of NCAA enforcement – the first case dates back to 1953 – there’s never been a paragraph written like the one released Thursday from its case against the University of Louisville men’s basketball program.

“[An assistant coach] provided impermissible inducements, offers and/or extra benefits in the form of adult entertainment, sex acts and/or cash at Billy Minardi Hall, a campus dormitory, or Louisville, Kentucky, hotels to at least 17 then men’s basketball prospective and/or current student-athletes, two then non-scholastic men’s basketball coaches and one then men’s basketball prospective student-athlete’s friend. The value of the impermissible inducements, offers and/or extra benefits was at least $5,400.”

Go reread that one. Seriously. And, wait, there’s more.

The NCAA went on to detail each individual time the U of L basketball program thought plying recruits with escorts, strippers and who knows what else was a good idea.

It began with example A. Then went to example B. Then C. The list went all the way until O.

“… at least $450 in impermissible inducements at Minardi in the form of females providing a striptease show ($250) and sex acts ($200).”

“… at least $510 in impermissible inducements at Minardi in the form of at least $40 in cash, females performing two striptease shows ($310) and sex acts ($160).”

“… During then men’s basketball prospective student-athlete’s official paid visit to the institution … at least $650 in impermissible inducements at Minardi, which included $400 in cash to then men’s basketball prospective student-athlete and females performing a striptease show ($250) …”

And so on …

Louisville coach Rick Pitino was cited for
Louisville coach Rick Pitino was cited for “failure to monitor” by the NCAA. (AP)

Much of this was alleged a little over a year ago when a woman named Katina Powell, who describes herself as an escort, released the book, “Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen.” It said all sorts of things happened. The NCAA, through interviews with coaches, players, recruits and so on, confirmed it. After the allegations were met with initial resistance, there aren’t many people denying the word of Katina Powell anymore.

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The news focus on Thursday is how Louisville and its Hall of Fame coach, Rick Pitino, were able to avoid significant charges – lack of institutional control for the school, direct involvement for the coach. Pitino was hit with a “failure to monitor” charge (gee, you think?) but that’s about it. The school’s self-imposed postseason ban last season should mitigate serious further punishment. It’s unlikely the NCAA will strip the Cardinals of their 2013 NCAA championship, despite Powell claiming two players from that team were at the parties.

So it’s probably just onward and upward.

Writing and discussing the machinations of the NCAA infractions process is fine. Fans want to know what the fallout will be. So, too, is the handy legal defense work of law firms that hire former NCAA executives to help schools beat the system.

It also completely misses the entire point.

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Can we take a second before worrying about scholarship reductions and focus on this unquestioned fact … a prominent, powerhouse college basketball program turned its players’ dorm into a gentlemen’s club/brothel to help recruiting?

Not once, but on 15 different occasions. And that’s just what the NCAA could nail down.

I’ve been covering this stuff for two decades, have heard nearly every story imaginable and am the opposite of some shocked, wag-your-finger moralist (whatever) but still … how low can this sport sink? How big of a charade can college basketball become? How desensitized has college athletics become to scandal that this is practically considered just another Tier I case, like some rich booster slipping a poor athlete a few hundred bucks?

Sure, Louisville is blaming all of it on a rouge assistant, the now-unemployed Andre McGee. The idea this was some small secret is a farce, though. Pitino says he didn’t know and the NCAA took his word for it. OK, fine, Pitino didn’t know, if only because, as he has noted, doing such a thing would almost assuredly get him fired.

“As parents and university leaders who care about every student who comes to the University of Louisville, we are heartbroken that inappropriate behavior took place here,” acting Louisville president Neville Pinto said in a joint statement with athletic director Tom Jurich.

Shouldn’t he have known, however? Shouldn’t someone have known? This isn’t an isolated incident, this is time after time: A-to-O. There were 14 parties involving exotic dancing, 11 sex acts paid for and, perhaps the highlight here, two that were paid for but declined (nice to see the working women get one over on U of L hoops).

What exactly was going on with all these highly paid coaches and administrators at Louisville – from the head coach through the assistants? When the school was hosting important recruits they just left everything at night in the hands of an inexperienced, overly ambitious 20-something grad assistant, later promoted to director of basketball operations?

Did it dawn on anyone to check anything? We are to believe Andre McGee pulled this entire operation off again and again without anyone at all suspecting a thing? If so, his future should be with the CIA. He’s apparently a diabolical genius.

And how, as a parent – as Pitino and the older coaches and staffers are – did no one consider that they were supposed to watch someone else’s kid? Wouldn’t they want to, you know, watch even a little bit, let alone how they’d expect their own child to be cared for?

And I ask this final rhetorical question with an expected reaction, but does anyone at U of L have enough shame that they might consider just resigning for being so inept at their job that – it bears repeating – the basketball team used prostitutes to recruit players?

(Please stop laughing now.)

University of Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich (left) and acting Louisville president Neville Pinto. (AP)
University of Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich (left) and acting Louisville president Neville Pinto. (AP)

The NCAA is only slightly better here. The big prize is Pitino but it doesn’t really want to mess with him. It seems the NCAA is trying to play it both ways in its case, citing Pitino for failure to monitor but at the same time concluding he neither knew nor reasonably should’ve known what was happening.

Exactly how does that work? If he hadn’t failed to monitor then he would have reasonably known, correct? Isn’t that what monitoring is? Apparently the NCAA doesn’t want to get into strict liability, but that’s a mixed message. It also robs Pitino the ability to fully exonerate himself, if he deserves exoneration.

This isn’t even about Louisville, though. It’s about a culture of cutthroat “amateur” sports. This could occur at all sorts of colleges and universities, in all sorts of sports. The school and the coach would react the same way. It probably has, or is occurring right now. Using the world’s oldest profession can’t possibly be a new trick.

Actually, no, it wouldn’t occur at all schools.

There are plenty of good and honest people in college athletics who would find it reprehensible to host a recruit and either purposefully send him into a party of escorts and sex acts or pay so little attention and plan so few reasonable activities that doing so becomes standard operating procedure.

Unfortunately there just aren’t enough of those people.