First: Jim Valvano did the right thing in not reinstating Chris Washburn to the North Carolina State basketball team for the remainder of this season, in the wake of Washburn's sentencing for stealing a fellow student's stereo.
Second: It was a tougher call than you might think.
Third: I'm not so much opposed to athletes with low college board scores being admitted into colleges -- particularly in-state students at state schools -- as I am opposed to them being eligible for varsity sports as freshmen. If you're aghast and indignant that Washburn was allowed into N.C. State despite his ludicrous total of 470 on his SATs, you might ask the athletic directors throughout the ACC or the Big East, for example, how their players scored on the SATs. My guess is that some would be under 600. While 470 is brutal, 600 is nothing to send to the Rhodes committee, either. Yet it often happens that an athlete who was not predicted to do so, with tutoring and incentive, can handle and even excel at a college curriculum. I'll bet N.C. State has had some of them, too.
Let's all start on the same page: Washburn was recruited to college to play basketball. Every school, all those giddy letter-writers who recruited him, even those that eventually -- and reluctantly -- called off the chase because of his sorry academic profile, wanted Washburn for the same reason, because he could lead a team to a national championship. I don't recall anyone recruiting Washburn because they heard he had potential as a chemist.
Coaches want players like Washburn because they make it so much easier to win. The reason coaches like to win is because coaches who do not win quickly become ex-coaches. I've always assumed a coach's first priority is winning. If I ever met a big-time college coach who was truly more concerned about academics than winning, I would respectfully suggest to him that he consider changing occupations.
Colleges want players like Washburn because they are boffo at the box office. In person and on television. I trust it will not shock you to learn that colleges are in business, that they require money to stay open so they can continue all their wonderful teaching and research. Colleges like revenue-producing sports because they produce revenue. A national championship basketball team produces a bucket of revenue.
With all this as background, I believe that while Valvano's decision not to reinstate Washburn to the basketball team this season was in Washburn's best interests, it wasn't in Valvano's self-interest, if for no other reason than that Valvano believes that with Washburn, N.C. State could well win this year's national championship.
"Oh yeah, no question," Valvano said yesterday. "That's why I'm laughing at the notion that I based the decision on what's best for my basketball team, not on what's best for Chris. People are saying I did it because we're winning, so I felt we didn't need him. That's insane. That's like saying the Lakers don't need Kareem because they won one game with him out and Magic at center. Look, we could win it all with Chris this year. How many chances do you think you get?"
I wondered about the timing of Valvano's decision, why he waited so long to make a definitive statement on Washburn.
"On Dec. 21, when he was arrested, I said I was dismissing him from the team in what I thought were his best interests," Valvano said. "I said that any subsequent decision would be based on the same criteria. But people chose to see that as a loophole to put him back. They said I had something up my sleeve. The truth is, it's a real dilemma. It's not cut and dried. I'm dealing with the kid's life.
"The court imposed lots of things on Chris, (a total 320 hours of community service) and my No. 1 concern has to be to satisfy the court. You know what can happen if Chris fouls up? He's looking at the possibility of time. So the first thing I had to make sure of was that Chris could perform the service and show the court his sincerity. Then I needed to go to people more qualified than I, counselors and psychiatrists. I wanted to know what role -- if any -- should basketball play in his rehabilitation process. Ball has been a very important part of his life. Was it positive, or negative? If I put him back on the team, was I sending him an improper signal? I didn't want him to believe that because he had talent anything he did would be excused. By the same token, I didn't want to deprive him of something crucial to his well-being."
From the outset, Washburn wanted to come back and play.
Valvano admits he wasn't sure what to do; he felt pressure both ways, to keep Washburn off and to reinstate him.
"But the more I looked at Chris's program -- the difficulty in satisfying the court on a daily basis and in going to school and getting tutored, too -- the more I wondered where he'd fit in all the hours of basketball. In the final analysis, basketball would have been more of a negative than a positive. I told him the most important thing now was to continue to satisfy the court, hoop couldn't be the priority now.
"It's funny, but from the beginning I always had a feeling that Chris, more than anything else, needed to get his life in order, and that his playing basketball would be more of a detriment than an inspiration. He needed -- morally, spiritually, realistically -- to understand who Chris Washburn is. He needed to succeed in an area other than basketball. He's succeeding with the community service. It's not the way you'd want it to happen, but it's been beneficial."
In the end, Valvano's decision was based on practicality, not morality.
"Morally, he already knows he did something wrong; he has said so a million times," Valvano said. "We're beating a moral dead horse. Enough already."
It's not that easy.
Chris Washburn is symptomatic of a recruiting system gone berserk, and Jim Valvano, once adored and glorified by the media as something fresh and fine, is now being sawed off at the knees by the very people who knelt to kiss him. It's not a hand you want to be dealt; it's not enough to win with.