The punishment fit the crime like a jail sentence for jaywalking.
Stripping the University of Louisville of an NCAA basketball championship for players’ carnal knowledge of sex workers was arguably Draconian and would be inarguably excessive if not for the procurement services of UofL’s then-director of basketball operations, Andre McGee, and the presumed lost innocence of underage recruits.
That the story was salacious, enormously embarrassing and exceedingly difficult to explain away is unquestionable. That the involvement of a basketball staff member effectively elevated a tawdry scandal to an NCAA infractions case is a pertinent fact often overlooked. Still, finding a meaningful connection between the stripper parties at Minardi Hall and Louisville’s 2013 title would require a suspension of disbelief that would make George Santos blush.
Not a single basket of Uo L’s season-ending 16-game winning streak was attributable to hanky-panky in the basketball dorm. Five years since the NCAA rejected Louisville’s appeal of its “vacated” title, not a single coherent voice has identified a causal link between Katina Powell’s mobile bordello and the Cardinals’ net-cutting in Atlanta.
“The bottom line is whatever happened didn’t help us win us any games or help us get any recruits,” said Luke Hancock, Most Outstanding Player of the 2013 Final Four. “And so, if you’re going to take away accomplishments for something that happened, there needs to be a cause and effect, a reason.
“That’s the thing: the NCAA kind of operates like an HOA (Home Owners Association) — an unregulated HOA. If you live in the neighborhood, they can do whatever they want.”
Hancock spoke after Saturday’s halftime ceremony honoring the 2013 team at the KFC Yum Center, an event that attracted the season’s largest crowd and, almost certainly, its loudest cheers. Though a banner acknowledging the 2013 team’s No. 1 ranking in the final coaches poll failed to appease those UofL fans determined to restore the school’s vacated championship, opportunities to celebrate have been few this season.
“That group is loved here and they should be loved here,” UofL coach Kenny Payne said of the 2013 team. “What they (did) would inspire a lot of people and made a lot of people happy. There’s only three. There’s only three (UofL) teams that can really say they walked away with it and they’re one of them. I don’t really know what to say about the NCAA and what they will or won’t do, but I know what this community feels about these young men who played on that team.”
That Louisville fans have overwhelmingly refused to let go of the 2013 title is due in part to the difficulty of winning a title, but also to the obvious disconnect between UofL’s sins and its sanctions. In terms of cause and effect, the Louisville case pales in comparison with the 2004 BCS football title USC lost because of ethical shortcuts taken by the family of running back Reggie Bush, who ultimately forfeited his 2005 Heisman Trophy as a result.
UofL’s problem is that the NCAA is ill-equipped to punish culprits appropriately. Lacking the leverage to compel testimony or punish perpetrators once they have left campus, NCAA penalties have historically tended toward broad-brush deterrence instead of punitive precision.
Granted, without the threat of severe sanctions, college athletics would be even more corrupt and chaotic than they already are. Recent efforts by the NCAA to spare the innocent punishments earned by wayward predecessors have lately led to lighter sentences, but might not be relevant to infractions committed by a member of the 2013 basketball staff. Though Saturday’s ceremony featured introductions or mentions of nearly everyone associated with the 2013 team, including wives, children and a team chaplain accused (though never charged) of sexually abusing two minors, Andre McGee’s name was a notable omission.
Hancock’s hope is the new banner on display Saturday was “Step 1” toward restoring the NCAA’s formal recognition of the Cardinals’ championship. He theorized a hearing before an Independent Accountability Review panel might have produced a higher quality of mercy had the IARP been an option during UofL’s strippergate investigation.
“I think time’s in our favor,” Stephan Van Treese told reporters Saturday. “I don’t want to speculate on what could or could not happen with the NCAA in the future, but I will say the school’s going to do everything in their power to make everything where it should be.”
Peyton Siva, co-captain of the 2013 team, was the only player to address the crowd. But Montrezl Harrell made himself heard with a gesture, raising his arms and pointing at the championship ring on the middle finger of his right hand.
Later, Wayne Blackshear echoed Harrell’s sentiment aloud.
“The hard work we put in can’t be denied,” he said. “You can’t erase history.”