By John Feinstein
Monday, June 1, 2009 1:48 PM
The people who work in the NCAA office in Indianapolis like to point out that they are not the NCAA, that the NCAA is, in fact, the member schools. Their point is this: If you don't like what we do here, don't blame us; blame the presidents and athletic directors who make all the silly rules that we (sometimes) enforce.
In that sense, last week was good for the Indy folks. Two stories -- one which drew national attention; one that appeared in the Wall Street Journal -- once again made clear why college athletics are such a mess.
The first involves an alleged "student-athlete" not being quite the student he was propped up to be during his one year in college. It involves a big-time coach making a lot of money and, of course, proclaiming that he's shocked to learn there is gambling going on at Rick's American Café.
The other is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It involves the self-proclaimed do-gooders of the Ivy League. Let's begin there.
Friday's Wall Street Journal carried a long story on the fall of Ivy League athletics. Some of this isn't news. Anyone who follows men's basketball knows the Ivy League hasn't won an NCAA tournament game in 11 years and that most of the first-round losses since then haven't been close. If you follow football, you know the Ivy League doesn't let its champion take part in the I-AA playoffs, even though the conference's "student-athletes" in all other sports are allowed to participate in postseason. There was also some concern expressed about hockey teams not being quite as good as in the past, although the story glossed over the fact that Cornell had just come within four seconds of a national title in lacrosse.
The most remarkable part of the story was the arrogant and pretentious quotes from various Ivy League administrators. The prevailing sentiment was this: The Ivies aren't doing better because athletics are beneath them. Perhaps the most telling line of all came from Columbia Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy. Asked why she opposed the Ivies having a conference basketball tournament the way every other Division I conference does, Murphy said: "It's another week of being out of class. In our league, that matters."
First of all, it isn't a week of being out of class. It might be two days if the tournament was held on a Friday-Saturday-Sunday. Or one day for two teams if it was held on a Saturday-Sunday-Monday. Clearly facts are not required when Ivy League administrators speak.
Then comes the second half of the quote: "In our league, that matters."
Oh, please. It doesn't matter in the Patriot League, whose schools are tough academically and graduate almost 100 percent of their athletes? It doesn't matter at, say, North Carolina, which just won the national championship and graduates almost all its basketball players? Or at Notre Dame or Georgetown or Duke or Penn State, just to name a few?
Every other D-I school has hope of a March Miracle in the conference tournament -- not the kids in the Ivy League. And let's not go back to the silly "missing class" argument. If Cornell had somehow won two games in this year's NCAA tournament would the players have been told they couldn't go to the round of 16 because they would miss two more days of class?
It's even worse in football where the players have no chance to take part in postseason even if they go undefeated. There's no reason for this except for administrators saying, "It's beneath us." You better believe the players wouldn't think it was beneath them.
There are, of course, plenty of athletes who not only miss class but don't bother ever attending them. Last week, in an upset at least as surprising as the Yankees spending money on a free agent, the University of Memphis was accused of using an ineligible player during its run to the 2008 NCAA championship game. Point guard Derrick Rose has been accused of getting someone to take the SAT for him.
The only surprise in this is that, if true, Rose is the first star player actually caught in the last few years. Has anyone noticed that almost no one who can play fails to meet standardized test requirements any more? Kids just must be studying harder, right?
The system's been beaten. Even in the Rose case, it's been beaten. He's long gone, an NBA millionaire. So is his coach, John Calipari, off to Kentucky for millions. Memphis may be forced to "vacate" its runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament, but you know what that means? A banner comes down. Wow, that will really hurt.
Last week's amusement occurred when Kentucky fell all over itself insisting that Calipari is sort of Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight rolled into one when it comes to ethics. Kentucky President Lee Todd issued a statement saying that Coach Calipari is pure as the driven snow and we know that because he told us that and because we say so. Todd also might have said that the emperor's new clothes look fabulous even if you can't see them.
Calipari is a terrific coach and one of the truly likeable people in college athletics. But he has been to two Final Fours -- the other was in 1996 with Massachusetts -- and there's a decent chance both will have to be vacated. Does anyone other than Todd think that's coincidence? Of course no one at Kentucky cares. They just know that Coach Cal has signed some terrific players, run off some mediocre ones (all within NCAA rules) and the Wildcats are going to be really good next year.
So whether they're from the Ivy League or the SEC, we can expect two qualities from college administrators when it comes to athletics: arrogance and pretension.