On Tuesday, the NCAA once again spun its wheel of punishments and announced that the University of Louisville men’s basketball team had been stripped of all of its wins from 2011-15, including its trip to the Final Four in 2012 and its national title in 2013. This marks the conclusion of a long NCAA investigation into Louisville’s hiring of sex workers to entertain recruits.
What the university did was undoubtedly wrong, and Louisville deserves a harsh punishment, but the question that has to be considered is: Does the punishment fit the crime?
Vacating victories has a long history in individual sports. When an Olympic athlete is found to have used banned substances or otherwise cheated in their event, they deserve to have their medals taken back. It is easy to pin the blame for one person’s actions on his or her individual performance, but how can a governing body take away what a team earned solely based on the violations that did not directly affect the outcome of the game?
Unless it can be proven that a team violated rules that directly affected its in-game performance, vacating victories should not have a place in team sports. Things that are happening behind the scenes, such as academic misconduct, paying players and other inappropriate actions deserve a harsh punishment, but do not warrant the erasure of wins from a team’s history.
According to the official NCAA records, the 2013 national champion was no one, and the Michigan Wolverines lost the national championship game to no one. Millions of people witnessed Louisville cut down the net in 2013, and now, after confiscating its trophy and taking down its banner, we are all supposed to completely forget about it? Other than telling fans and players that their team no longer accomplished what it accomplished that year, it does nothing to punish the team in the present or future.
A few months ago, I wrote a column discussing the FBI’s investigation into several Division I basketball programs, including Louisville, that were accused of being a part of complex bribery schemes involving recruits. This investigation was the last straw for Louisville head coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich, who were fired immediately after the report was published. It should be noted that the decision to vacate wins is unrelated to the FBI investigation. So far, Louisville is still under investigation, and will likely receive another harsh punishment from the NCAA and the FBI several years from now.
The NCAA needs to change its way of punishing schools so that its sanctions do more than just deal with the past. There are multiple ways to do this; for instance, banning the coaches and executives responsible for life from collegiate athletics, banning the team from postseason play or taking away scholarships from the program. When dealing with the worst offenders, the NCAA should impose all of these actions.
In 1987, after repeated serious infractions of NCAA rules, the Southern Methodist University football program was given the NCAA’s most severe sanction — the “death penalty.” The SMU football team was forced to cancel two years of play, eliminate scholarships and have limits placed on off-campus recruiting. As a result, the program was destroyed and has only recently been able to recover with moderate success. SMU is still nowhere near the national championship contender it was before receiving the death penalty, and it may never be.
If the NCAA really wants to eliminate the corruption, it should use the death penalty to severely damage programs that are serious or repeat offenders. Obviously, this punishment would be reserved for the most serious offenders, particularly those who have wrongdoings that exceed minor violations. What has happened with Louisville over the course of the two scandals far exceeds the misconduct of SMU, and thus the program should be punished accordingly.