Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The NCAA’s a joke in our town

If only MTV still played music, maybe I could turn the Brad Kelleher debacle into a video.

The first instinct upon Tuesday upon learning the long-rumored Brad Kelleher news was indeed true—the NCAA has ruled the Australian transfer, who was already declared ineligible last season for signing a professional contract in his native country but never playing in a game, must miss the first eight games of this season as well and that Hofstra’s exhibition games do not count towards his suspension—was to do nothing.

After all, who gives a crap? You can’t fight City Hall. The NCAA remains the biggest joke in an America with no shortage of laughingstocks. The year-plus that Hofstra spent exhausting all its options and appeals on Kelleher’s behalf is the latest proof that all the bellyaching and screaming won’t accomplish a damn thing. It is above the law and creating it all at the same time. It will do what it wants to do. Anyone paying even a whit of attention and not rooting for one of the BCS schools the NCAA serves recognizes what a joke the “governing body” has been for decades and will be for decades to come.

But that’s what the NCAA wants us to do. It wants to bludgeon us into apathy, to exhaust us into silence with its nonsensical explanations and lawyer-speak. It wants us to throw our hands up in the air, and maybe even throw up a little too, and to surrender and admit defeat, to stop fighting and rooting for the little guy and just sit there and smile as we watch a Final Four contested between the blue bloods and consume commercials paid for by corporate sponsors.

We won’t do that. Not today. Not on a day in which Kelleher, who should be the poster boy for all that is right about the NCAA—a foreign-born student parlaying his basketball skills into a good education and a great cultural experience—is instead the symbol of all that is wrong with a hypocritical and illogical “organization” which specializes in selective justice.

This is not to say Kelleher shouldn’t serve some sort of punishment. As honest a mistake as Kelleher made, and as stupid as the rule is that he supposedly broke, a small sentence would have been tolerable. Sure, we would have made the requisite jokes about Hofstra getting punished because Kentucky really went overboard. But we’ve been down this road before with Miklos Szabo and Greg Washington. This is just how it works.

At least Szabo missed just two games and at least Washington was able to redshirt his freshman year. But forcing Kelleher to the sidelines for a year-and-a-third when he only has two years of eligibility? For an offense that, by all accounts, was a clerical one? When far worse offenses go unpunished every single day at the higher levels of Division I?

When a Hofstra gets punished, it’s so easy to crack bitter jokes about Kentucky because Kentucky has been brazenly breaking the rules and mostly getting away with it for generations. Last year, shortly after Kentucky hired John Calipari—the only man to preside over two Final Four berths that did not happen—freshman phenom John Wall was suspended two games (one of which was an exhibition, honest to God, you can’t make this up) for receiving “travel benefits” from his AAU coach, who just happened to be a certified agent.

Kelleher will have missed 43 games, counting this year’s exhibition against Molloy College. So judging by the punishments meted out by the NCAA, Kelleher signing a contract with a professional team in Australia but never suiting up was 21.5 times worse than receiving benefits from a coach who also happens to be an agent. But of course the NCAA benefits from the exposure Wall provides before he bolts to the NBA and becomes the league’s top draft pick.

Hofstra will probably be in trouble again within the next year: Incoming Kentucky freshman Enes Kanter received $100,000 in cash and other benefits from the professional team he played for in his native Turkey. This news comes straight from his general manager. Who wants to wager Kanter’s punishment is much closer to Wall’s than Kelleher’s, even though Kanter both played for and was paid by a professional team?

It’s also impossible not to note the incongruity of the Kelleher news coming down the same day Reggie Bush gave back the Heisman Trophy he won in 2005. You can stake whatever fortune you have earned on the fact that Bush is nowhere near the only Heisman winner to receive illegal benefits during his award-winning season. As the eternally awesome Joe Posnanski put it on Twitter yesterday: “I hope every Heisman winner who got paid under the table while in college takes a moment tonight to polish their trophy.”

A very quick Google search, in fact, finds no fewer than seven other Heisman Trophy winners since 1987 who played for schools that were either on probation or were investigated by the NCAA for shenanigans that occurred during their collegiate careers.

Carson Palmer played for USC before Bush arrived but while the program was on probation. Matt Leinart, of course, played with Bush. Troy Smith won the Heisman in 2006, a year after he was suspended for accepting $500 from a booster.

Vinny Testaverde and Gino Torretta played for the University of Miami, which was such a renegade program in the 1980s and 1990s that Sports Illustrated called for the program to be eliminated (if only Stuart Rabinowitz was there at the time). Andre Ward won the Heisman in 1989, a year after Houston was placed on three years probation. Barry Sanders earned the award in 1988, mere weeks before Oklahoma State was placed on four years probation.

But now, just like with Kelleher, the NCAA can say it did something and punished somebody now that Bush has forfeited the Heisman, even if it looked the other way for decades, even if it took an expose by Yahoo! Sports to finally push the NCAA into action and even if the so-called adults within the USC program escaped unscathed. Pete Carroll, Bush’s head coach at USC, bolted the Trojans just before the cavalry arrived last winter and won his debut game with the Seattle Seahawks Sunday.

The Bush expose was authored, in part, by Yahoo! Sports’ Josh Peter—who, as a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2003, wrote a piece detailing the unusually nice car driven around campus by Duke star Chris Duhon and how the parents of Duhon and Carlos Boozer got high-paying jobs at companies operated by powerful Duke boosters.

Duke, of course, escaped without punishment or any sort of serious investigation—just as it did when it was revealed Corey Maggette was paid cash by an AAU coach shortly before he signed with Duke in 1997. And why not? We wouldn’t want that—wouldn’t want anyone watching the NCAA Tournament every March to think anything other than Duke is pure and perfect.

But if I were Brad Kelleher, I wouldn’t accept that offer of a bottle of water from a classmate in a hot classroom this afternoon. You know, just in case the NCAA once again gets the itch to prove how serious it is about enforcing the rules.

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