College recruiting can be difficult. Elite athletic programs spend as much time competing against each other for the top high school athletes as they do competing on the football field or the basketball court. Sometimes rules are broken — as when boosters pay players, or schools help players cheat in the classroom.
Money and academic fraud aren’t always enough to lure recruits. That’s where sex comes into the picture. Lots of major colleges have offerings in which attractive female students will escort recruits around campus for the weekend, showing them the dorms and the classrooms, making sure they have a good time. Sex is not supposed to be involved, but there have been instances in which these escorts have slept with the recruits.
Then there’s the Louisville Cardinals, who offered strippers and prostitutes to select high school basketball players from December 2010 to July 2014. This was all kept under the radar until the local madam who supplied the women to the athletic department wrote a book — which caught the interest of the NCAA.
The NCAA punished Louisville last week. The school must vacate wins from the 2012-2015 seasons, including a national title. It has been placed on probation for four years. The since-fired operations director for basketball has been hit with a ten-year show-cause penalty (a school can hire him only if it receives advance permission from the NCAA). And head coach Rick Pitino has been suspended for the first five games of the next conference season.
Then there’s the big punishment: Louisville must return all of the money that it received through conference revenue sharing for the team's appearance in the NCAA Tournament from 2012 through 2015.
“Without dispute,” the NCAA said in a statement, “NCAA rules do not allow institutional staff members to arrange for stripteases and sex acts for the prospects, enrolled student-athletes and/or those who accompany them to campus.”
Louisville is, of course, appealing this punishment. School officials have admitted in the past that improper activities occurred. But administrators argued that Pitino, who was nailed for failure to monitor the activities of the former operations director, was unaware of what was going on with his team and with the recruits. Louisville has also argued in the past that it shouldn’t be severely punished because the prostitutes and strippers were inexpensive, and failed to yield it much of a recruiting advantage.
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Teams often break the NCAA rules, and schools are also punished repeatedly. Some schools get severe punishments for paying players (Southern Methodist), while some schools that get nailed for paying high-profile athletes in two different sports at the same time just have to vacate wins while being banned from bowl games (USC). But generally, schools seem to pay only lip service to the NCAA. Titles can be vacated. Final Four appearances can be wiped off the books. But until now the money won in the process stayed with the school.
So maybe if the NCAA really wants to clean things up, going after the money is the best way to do that. Schools might have to start rethinking their tactics if they are forced to pay back revenue earned from cheating. Then coaches like John Calipari and Larry Brown won’t be able to bounce from school to school because colleges will steer clear of coaches with a track record of severe NCAA financial penalties.
Louisville's punishment can still be reduced. After all, it’s not like Louisville is North Carolina, which has been under an endless investigation because athletes took classes that didn't actually exist to stay eligible. The NCAA can’t quite seem to end that investigation, which means that the Tar Heels will continue to vie for the national title each year despite this cloud of suspicion.
So let’s see if North Carolina is ever forced to surrender any revenue earned from its trips to the NCAA tournament. If that happens, schools and coaches will know the NCAA is serious, and maybe start following the rules. If not, maybe things just turn out like SMU's football — which was banned by the NCAA for the 1987 season, which ruined the program for decades.