Saturday, February 25, 2012

Drinking Athletic Kool-Aid: Presidents & the U Conn Basketball Appeal

Last week the NCAA squashed the waiver appeal of University of Connecticut. U Conn was appealing their exclusion from the 2013 NCAA basketball tournament in light of a decade of academic negligence in its powerful basketball program. Its rolling average of graduating players fell significantly below 50 percent over the last two to four years. The appeal and its publicity were orchestrated by U Conn’s president Susan Herbst, a fine political scientist, who warned the NCAA that the school would be “deeply disappointed” if it’s appeal was denied.

Sometimes, but not often, I feel sorry for University Presidents who must defend their athletic programs. Poor Mary Sue Colman at Michigan had to stand on the same platform and defend Coach Rich Rodriquez, who could care less about educating his players. Graham Spanier joined several other Presidents and ended a marvelous 20-year career pulled down by Joe Paterno’s disgrace at Penn State. Only Gordon Gee seems immune from the disasters of his Ohio State program.

Some Presidents just drink the Kool-Aid and don’t really worry about the ordeal or humiliation of having to defend illegal or educational malpractice. Kentucky’s ex President Lee Todd, Jr. defended his basketball coach John Calipari as a model coach and “educator.” Annoucing his retirement Todd distilled a Kool-Aid presidency when he wished the UK could be as “good academically as it is athletically.”

President Herbst is doing her best to prove that athletics trumps academics. She has actively campaigned in the media against the injustice of her team missing the tournament for its long-term failure to worry about educating basketball players.

To understand the difficulty we need to remember that U Conn is already on probation and that Calhoun was prohibited from coaching several games this year. The team has also forfeited scholarships. Calhoun has always played rough and tight on NCAA rules. Like Kentucky’s Calipari or West Virginia’s Huggins, he epitomizes a breed of super coach for whom rules are a bother, not a guide. Educating and graduating ranks even lower, and two national championships persuaded the University to ignore his dismal graduation rate.

U Conn AD Jeff Hathaway also resigned under pressure. His relations with Calhoun and the basketball violations had a lot to do with his leaving. Herbst oversaw the his review and swift departure. Its unclear his departure was about violations, low academic standards, Calhoun's dislike or excessive power from angry boosters. 

The critical variable here is that like Paterno at Penn State, Calhoun’s success has woven into the texture of University of Connecticut’s brand and marketing. U Conn's rise to any national visibility is driven by its two basketball programs.  Whoever is President has to defend the program because the University’s reputation rides on the coattails of the basketball program.

U Conn’s appeal tells us about how important the NCAA tournament has become. The tournament overrides all other considerations. The school will give up all the money, cancel games, limit recruiting and even ask Calhoun to bring in old pros to talk about going to class, just let them go to the big dance. Herbst argues that “the university’s proposal” “fully accepts responsibility for past failings.”

In its willingness to jettison everything it can, U Conn identifies the deepest truth of college basketball—the tournament trumps everything. The publicity, story telling and reputation enhancement are invaluable to marketing and branding a school. It gains attention to schools that traditional academic standards would never gain them.

U Conn’s major argument “as an educator” is how unfair it is to change rules in the middle of the road and to punish the existing players/program for actions by past players.

If we accept her second argument, then no NCAA punishments could ever be levied against programs, ever. The basic unit of responsibility for the NCAA and American civil law is the institution. The existing players and coaches are almost always not the ones who committed the violations.  The players and coaches have often moved on and due process takes years. The point for the NCAA is that institutions are responsible, not just individuals. Using U Conn’s arguments no corporation could be held liable for past actions in pollution or discrimination because the people in place did not commit the violations.

As for the new rules changing, they have been discussed for years. U Conn was quite comfortable losing scholarships and doing recovery plans while not graduating students. The new rules were passed by the Presidents and immediately accepted. Everyone knew the time limits had changed. Thanks to the Secretary of Education everyone knew which  schools were in trouble for the last three years. The NCAA regularly changes rules with relatively limited run-ups in many areas such as rules governing games that might impact recruiting profiles of teams. The school had years to clean up its act, but no one bother to push the coaches.

I think the arguments are transparent attempts to get to the tournament regardless of costs. The recovery plan may actually make a difference but not until Calhoun is gone. The desperate desire to claw their way to the tournament suggests another danger.

The Kool-Aid presidents went along with the new reforms to increase standards and increase punishments. But Herbst’s reaction at actually having to live up to the standards and pay the cost suggest potential fissures in the presidential reform phalanx. She claims accepting responsibilitywould be a fundamental injustice to our team and to our university.”

If presidents, especially Kool-Aid ones, actually have to watch their schools live up to their standards, this could weaken the reform alliance already stressed by the passage of the cost of attendance and four year scholarship rules. Her claims simply repeat a threat other presidents cannot mention.

Now Presidents have to accept the consequences of their own right actions.

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