At the highest levels, Division I college athletics is a messy business. There are millions of dollars involved -- and possibly millions more depending on the whims of sometimes-impetuous 18-year-old recruits. The NCAA does its best to police it all but it's an almost impossible task, and depending on who you ask, it's also a conflict of interest.
During a Tuesday afternoon conference call with the NCAA to discuss the penalties imposed on the University of Connecticut basketball program for violations surrounding the recruitment of Nate Miles, reporters were skeptical as to whether UConn -- and specifically head coach Jim Calhoun -- had gotten off easy. It's a fair question; the stiffest penalty is probably the three-conference-game suspension for Calhoun beginning in 2011-2012 (you can see the other penalties here).
So was it enough? Honestly, I have no idea. Much like NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell haphazardly meting out fines and punishments for transgressions ranging from off-field issues to dangerous on-field hits, the NCAA (to continue the football metaphor) isn't afraid to move the goal posts when it comes to taking disciplinary action. They will argue that no two cases are the same. Technically that's true, but it makes the media, fans and the aggrieved all the more suspicious of the NCAA's motives.
And that invariably leads to this, since it seems to come up every time there is an investigation: Will there ever come a time when the NCAA will change the rules about benefits extended to student-athletes?
That's a rhetorical question because the obvious answer is no. There is too much money involved, and the NCAA has no incentive to change anything. Even if the current system doesn't allow student-athletes at major colleges and universities to receive payment for the millions of dollars they bring in through ticket sales and television revenue.
There is no disputing that UConn violated the rules (and you could even argue that Calhoun knew about much of it), but I only mention it because this passage in the NCAA's final report caught my attention:
Further, the committee found that the head coach “overlooked indications” that this booster might be breaking NCAA rules. Specifically, the booster provided the prospect with impermissible inducements, including the payment of at least a portion of the expenses for the young man’s foot surgery; the cost of his enrollment at a basketball academy; the registration fee for the SAT; as well as strength, conditioning and basketball training.
Look, we can all agree that there is no place for boosters or agents in amateur sports. But why isn't there a NCAA fund to pay for potential student-athletes' SAT registration? Isn't getting an education the whole point? This isn't the forum for a health care debate, but, all else equal, I can't muster the mock outrage over the thought that "a portion of the expenses for the young man's foot surgery" were also taken care of.
It's not like we're talking new cars, lump sums of cash, or Hawaiian vacations. And again, this isn't to absolve UConn of wrongdoing. They broke the rules. It's just that maybe there needs to be a new rulebook to make allowances for things like registering for the college entrance exams or impending surgeries.
Ultimately, this is about shades of gray. Every big-time athletics program gets very close -- and from time to time probably crosses -- the line between right and wrong, at least in the eyes of the NCAA. The reality is that if a program doesn't push these boundaries, they won't be prominent for long. This time, UConn got caught. Hopefully, they'll learn their lesson. And who knows, maybe one of these days the NCAA will too.