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John Feinstein: The NCAA’s version of justice is puzzling

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To paraphrase Jerry Tarkanian’s oft-repeated quote involving Kentucky and Cleveland State, the NCAA must be so mad at Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun that Radford’s Brad Greenberg is going to get suspended for four games.

In truth, the NCAA didn’t punish Radford’s coach (the brother of Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg) because the school did it first, suspending Greenberg for the final four games of the season. According to the school’s news release, Greenberg was suspended for breaking NCAA rules involving, “team travel and associated extra benefits.”

Here is what Greenberg did: He took Masse Doumbe with him to road games Radford played during Thanksgiving break and Christmas break even though he was ineligible. The NCAA had barred Doumbe from playing in the first 21 games of the season because he had played on a French team the NCAA deemed professional because one player on the team (not Doumbe) was being paid. Greenberg didn’t want to leave him alone on campus during the holidays, so he brought him with the team.

That was the impermissible travel.

The extra benefits? Meals, and a bed to sleep in.

Imagine what might have happened if he had bought the kid an ice cream cone after a team meal.

But this is justice in college sports, whether it is meted out by a school trying to show it can really crack down on itself or the NCAA suspending Calhoun for three games next season for violations involving illegal contact with recruits and, specifically, the actions of a former team manager who was involved in the recruitment of a player.

Calhoun, who was never one to duck a tough question, has been reduced to putting out garbled statements from some lawyer about how Calhoun takes full responsibility but really this is no big deal and let’s move on because there’s a tournament to be played.

There is no one better than the NCAA when it comes to self-righteousness and secrecy. The simplest question is often met with absolute astonishment that it would even be asked. Last month, during one of the NCAA basketball committee chairman’s conference calls leading up to Selection Sunday, Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith was asked by the Kansas City Star’s Blair Kerkhoff, “Gene, can you tell us how many teams would be on your ‘absolutely in’ list right now?”

Kerkhoff wasn’t asking for any specifics, just a number.

Smith replied, “Oh come on Blair, you know I can’t answer that question.”

Smith was laughing so hard you might have thought Kerkhoff had asked him what Jared Sullinger is planning to major in when he’s an Ohio State senior.

Of course the NCAA likes to claim that “transparency” is important. That’s why, after many reporters wondered for years what actually goes on in the selection process, some genius in Indianapolis came up with the idea a few years back to invite “selected” media members to participate in a mock selection of the tournament field.

This was a classic NCAA move. Rather than allow a member of the media into the room when the selections were actually being made, they allowed the media to come out and pretend to be committee members.

A couple of years ago, George Mason Athletic Director Tom O’Connor, the committee chairman in 2009, was asked why in the world a reporter couldn’t sit in on the deliberations.

“The problem is this,” O’Connor said. “Guys might feel inhibited about what they say with a reporter in the room.”

Really? So a committee member would feel inhibited about explaining why a certain team should be in or out, or seeded higher or lower? Why is that a problem? Doesn’t the NCAA, which gets billions from TV because the public is interested in the tournament, have an obligation to let the public know exactly why teams got in or didn’t get in and who it was who promoted a certain team or didn’t promote a certain team? Isn’t that real transparency?

Now, having snowed many media members with the mock bracket, the NCAA is going a step further. In May, “selected” media members are being invited to take part in the “Enforcement Experience,” in which reporters will spend a day acting as rules enforcement officials and then become members of the infractions committee to hand down penalties.

I have consistently turned down the opportunity to take part in the mock selection process because, to me, it is nothing more than another way that the NCAA stonewalls. Murder trials can be aired on television, but the selection of a basketball tournament can’t be witnessed by one reporter with a notebook?

I might accept an invitation to the “Enforcement Experience,” though, because I won’t need an entire day to render my judgments on anyone brought before my committee.

I don’t need any deliberations to know that virtually everyone is guilty of worse than Brad Greenberg (who, it should be noted, has admitted he made a mistake, taken responsibility for it and accepted the penalty). And if four-game suspensions are the going rate for not abandoning a kid over the holidays, then the punishments for real offenses can’t be harsh enough.

For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.

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