Mark Bacon—Main Event Sports DC
The use of the term “death penalty” to describe the most extreme of NCAA sanctions always has seemed needlessly hyperbolic — and also hopelessly inaccurate.
The only Division I program ever to be presented that punishment was SMU football, back in the 1980s. The other weekend, the Mustangs lost a conference game by 28 points to undefeated UCF. So, of course, the headline on that game, and every one of the 345 SMU has played since 1989, should have read: “BACK FROM THE DEAD!!!”
It’s not like we’ve had so many resurrections in this world that we’d become blase about one happening in sports.
A ban from competition is not a death penalty. SMU has shown us, however, that a program is never the same after it’s applied — even if it still has a functioning heartbeat. In that sense, it’s more like a maiming.
This is why we Louisville fans are struck with fear, having been apprised of the testimony in a New York federal court that indicated then-Cardinals assistant coach Kenny Johnson made a direct payment to the parent of a then-Cardinals freshman player, Brian Bowen.
Adding this to the published transcript of recorded conversations of another Cardinals assistant discussing various recruiting misdeeds — and all this occurring after the NCAA had sanctioned U of L over the Breaking Cardinal Rules scandal — underscores that multiple high-level violations in a short period makes a program eligible for a ban of one or more seasons.
Taking away Cardinals basketball for a year or more certainly would send a message to other potential offenders that repeated issues could lead to this degree of consequence. After three decades in which the “death penalty” has not been applied, its effectiveness as a deterrent is obviously diminished. The men who are alleged to have broken rules on behalf of Louisville basketball supposedly waited fewer than three months before they were back in action.
There’s no way the NCAA could or should take this action, though. The circumstances are much different now than when SMU went down. For starters, there’s almost no one left at Louisville to “execute.” Louisville has a new president, a new athletic director, a new head basketball coach, new assistant coaches and mostly new players. The scope of these two cases was spread over much of this decade, during which Chris Mack was head coach of the Xavier Musketeers and new AD Vince Tyra was operating partner at Southfield Capital, a private equity firm. They are in place now ostensibly to clean up the mess that became of the department and basketball program.
If there is no basketball program, well, that would be more difficult to manage.
The NCAA also would need to be careful about engendering another legal fight were it to assess another season-long or multi-season ban. Not only does defending against lawsuits cost money, as we learned this week in the case of former Southern California football assistant Todd McNair, losing can undermine the organization’s authority.
A Los Angeles County judge ruled last week that the NCAA’s “show-cause” penalty against McNair violated California law, declaring it represented an “unlawful restraint” that hindered him from gaining employment in college coaching.
The assessment of the death penalty has the potential to interfere with many businesses related to college athletics, directly and tangentially, and it is likely the NCAA would have to defend itself against multiple cases were it to order Louisville to cease fielding a men’s basketball team for a year or more. There are broadcasts contracts in which U of L is engaged, and there may be deals arranged for outside tournaments and events. There is the commitment to play home games at the city’s KFC Yum! Center, an arena that already has fiscal issues even with roughly 20 dates a year from its primary tenant.
The NCAA has enough trouble to manage without inviting this upon itself.
If Louisville basketball ultimately is found to have committed more rules violations — and remember, such a ruling is likely to be years down the road as the NCAA awaits the all-clear from the Justice Department to run its own investigations — there will be remedies available to the NCAA that are less extreme.
The NCAA death penalty is dead. And never should rise again.