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Billy Reed: ‘Strippergate’ is repugnant but so are NCAA’s Draconian penalties against UofL program

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The head of the NCAA Committee on Infractions described the “Strippergate” scandal at the University of Louisville as “repugnant,” and I don’t know of anybody who would disagree with that. Unfortunately, however, that same description may be applied to the Draconian penalties the NCAA has levied against Coach Rick Pitino’s basketball program.

Simply put, the punishment exceeds the transgressions. Like many NCAA rulings, it is capricious, arbitrary, and unfair. If the NCAA sticks to its guns after U of L files its appeal, I would like to see the university – or somebody acting on its behalf – take the NCAA to court in search of real justice and not the NCAA’s twisted version of it.

The way I see it, the NCAA investigation, which lasted more than two years, identified Andre McGee as the guilty party. In his role as Pitino’s director of basketball operations, he orchestrated the “parties,” or whatever you want to call them, with the help of his friend, Katina Powell, who procured girls willing to dance, strip, and even have sex with players and recruits in Billy Minardi Hall.

That’s the basketball dorm named in honor of Pitino’s friend who perished in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and the name itself is reason enough to believe Pitino was unaware of McGee’s “parties.” Minardi was his best friend and his name is sacred with the coach.

Indeed, the NCAA found Pitino guilty only of failing to see what was going on under his nose. But once the mess became public, neither Pitino nor his boss, vice-president for athletics Tom Jurich, tried to stonewall, obfuscate, or cover up. U of L hired Chuck Smrt, a respected former NCAA investigator, to advise them on how to deal properly with the investigation.

As a show of good faith, the university even self-imposed some sanctions, including banning its very good team from post-season play in 2016. It willingly volunteered to give up some scholarships. In effect, the university put itself at the mercy of the NCAA instead of taking the case into the court system. It did everything the respected Smrt advised it to do.

Yet, as the “repugnant” comment indicates, the Committee on Infractions apparently acted more on visceral emotion than hard fact. It decided to throw the book at U of L as a way of sending a message to its other member institutions, the public, and the media. But the message is a double-edged sword, and one edge is that it’s pointless to work with the NCAA in good faith because such actions will not be rewarded.

The NCAA assessed the penalties without ever talking to McGee, who went underground upon the advice of attorney Scott Cox, who also happens to be a huge U of L fan. Remember, McGee is the guilty party here. But all he got was a “show-cause” penalty that will keep him from coaching for 10 years, as if any reputable college would touch him after the way he betrayed Pitino’s trust at U of L.

Had the penalties ended there, U of L wouldn’t have had much reason to complain. But then the NCAA piled on, putting the basketball program on four years’ probation, barring Pitino from coaching the first five Atlantic Coast Conference games of the upcoming season, taking away even more scholarships, and, most egregiously, saying that U of L’s 2013 NCAA championship would be vacated.

That means the university must take down the huge title banner in the KFC Yum! Center, return tournament money and trophies from that and other seasons, and rewrite the record book to turn victories into forfeits. Pitino’s coaching record must be rewritten, along with other team records and statistics.

More than anything, this shows the NCAA’s incredible arrogance. We all know who won the games. We saw them or heard them. Even the NCAA, in its role as Big Brother, can’t revise history or erase our memories.

Unfortunately for U of L, the basketball sanctions come at a particularly dark and vulnerable time in the university’s history. A forensic audit of the U of Foundation uncovered a lot of funny business that is unethical, at best, or even illegal, at worst. And the university still is on probation by its academic accrediting organization because of Gov. Matt Bevin’s meddling with the Board of Trustees.

Still, the university shouldn’t just roll over and accept the NCAA’s excessive punishment, which had little to do with justice and everything to do with cosmetics designed to make the NCAA look more admirable than it is.

By supporting this course of action, I’m in no way condoning what happened in Minardi Hall. It’s unacceptable. It’s repugnant. I get that. But I also get that what happened in Minardi Hall is less repugnant than the Sandusky scandal at Penn State or the serial rapes by Baylor football players that the coaching staff apparently covered up.

Besides, the recruits and players hardly live in a vacuum. They read and hear about professional athletes going to “gentleman’s clubs,” where they buy bottles of expensive champagne and pay for “lap dances” by strippers. At least, from what I’ve seen, there’s no evidence that alcohol or drugs were involved in McGee’s parties. Of course, that hardly excuses what happened.

From what I’ve read so far, the prevailing wisdom is that U of L should not contest the NCAA penalties, and one of the reasons is of fear of retribution from the NCAA. That fear, which is very real at just about every D-I institution, does not reflect well on the NCAA’s system of justice.

I doubt the NCAA is eager to go to court in this matter, because it might be exposed more than U of L. Frustrated that it can’t punish Andre McGee, the NCAA apparently feels it must do something to save face and maintain its façade of being in control. But the truth is, the NCAA needs a massive overhaul every bit as much as U of L does.

The hiring of disgraced former President Jim Ramsey’s successor will be one of the most crucial decisions ever made at the university. He or she must be squeaky clean. He or she must have the courage to clean house where necessary. He or she must have a plan to get U of L and its Foundation back on track. It is a daunting task, given all that apparently happened at U of L on Ramsey’s watch, but there’s somebody out there who can do it.

We need a new sheriff in town who has no preconceived ideas about the university, or friendships there that will compromise his or her ability to make tough decisions. Candidates from many fields – education, government, business, sports, the military – must be considered. It’s imperative that he or she have a good understanding of the tenuous, and often contentious, relationship between academics and athletics.

It will be several more months before the hire is made. In the meantime, everyone at U of L needs to concentrate on doing the right thing. If the university were to capitulate to the NCAA, I would certainly understand. That would be the easy – and maybe even the prudent – way out. But I hope the university continues to have the courage of its convictions, no matter the cost in money and time. That’s a good lesson to teach its students.

The university already has suffered greatly from two years’ worth of scornful national publicity and the sanctions it imposed upon itself. That should be enough. Andre McGee is the guilty party here, and nobody else should have to pay further for his sad and sick mistakes.

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Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby

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2 Comments

  1. Bill says:

    Only school in America that gets in trouble and refuses to clean house. Mafia U is disgusting…take your punishment like a man.

  2. overit says:

    How can you say the punishment is too harsh. Are you kidding me. The two of programs coaches have a history of being whore mongers. The ncaa sees a trend here and now the basketball recruits were introduced to the lifestyle of the head coach (Karen Sypher) . The NCAA came down on them to try to stop this trend. College coaches are entrusted with the welfare of these kids, and this is not the type of education that they want their children to get .

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