The University of Louisville’s head basketball coach has been suspended for the first five Atlantic Coast Conference games of the season, a piece of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s punishment stemming from a prostitution scandal that has roiled the institution for two years.
Though some legal experts and others versed in NCAA infractions say the penalties announced Thursday amount to little more than a wrist slap for Head Coach Rick Pitino and the university, Louisville officials vehemently disagreed with the association’s Committee on Infractions ruling and intend to appeal it entirely. At risk is the Cardinals’ national title, won in 2013 -- the NCAA ordered certain victories vacated as a part of the sanctions. Whether the title game will be forfeited remains unclear.
Some in academe had hoped that the NCAA would hand down harsher consequences, which might have signaled the panel’s willingness to hold head coaches more accountable for their programs. Historically, head coaches have largely avoided responsibility for major violations in their programs because their institutions (and the NCAA) have blamed the assistants proven to have engaged in the wrongdoing. The NCAA changed its rules several years ago to try to hold head coaches more responsible for rules breaches that occur under their watch -- and Louisville was seen as a test case for those rules.
The university “stands behind” Pitino, said Kenny Klein, a spokesman with the athletics department.
A former Louisville director of operations, Andre McGee, was found to have paid escorts to strip and have sex with both recruits and enrolled players in a residence hall occupied almost exclusively by the basketball team. The university launched an investigation after the head of the escort service, Katina Powell, published a tell-all book alleging McGee paid $10,000 or so for years of dancing and prostitution.
The NCAA investigation unearthed that these activities went on for at least four years without being flagged. Pitino exercised poor oversight over the program, the NCAA found, including failing to watch over the dormitory -- which he raised money to help build in the name of one of his family members -- and not properly monitoring McGee.
McGee left Louisville for an assistant coaching job at the University of Missouri-Kansas City but resigned from there in 2015 after the scandal went public. He refused to participate in the NCAA inquiry and can no longer work in an athletic role at any NCAA institution for a decade as part of the penalties.
The recruits -- most of whom were minors when McGee presented them with the strippers -- and players who participated were declared ineligible by the NCAA. As a result, some team wins from December 2010 to July 2014 will be vacated.
Carol Cartwright, former president of Kent State and Bowling Green State Universities and the chief hearing officer for the infractions panel, would not specify which games were to be vacated, indicating the university would announce that later.
Should the 2013 title game be forfeited, the university would need to return all awards and remove memorabilia celebrating the victory. Officials estimate more than 100 games and 15 NCAA tournament wins could be affected.
Top university officials held a news conference Thursday and expressed unanimous displeasure with the NCAA decision. Interim President Greg Postel in his opening statement called the sanctions “excessive.”
“There has been a heavy toll on the community, our fans and on players who played no part in the activities which took place,” Postel said.
In addition to the restrictions on Pitino and McGee, the university will be placed on a four-year probation and pay a $5,000 fine. It must also return all the money it received through conference revenue sharing from appearances in the Division I basketball tournament from 2012 through 2015. Officials have not calculated that cost to the university.
During the probationary period, no prospective player may spend the night in a campus dormitory or other university-owned property.
Though the university decided to reduce the number of basketball scholarships offered this academic year by two, the NCAA has instructed it to take away four more during the probationary period. Recruitment efforts are also more limited.
The university elected to not participate in postseason matches in 2016.
At the news conference, Postel sat alongside a roster of university representatives -- Pitino, Athletics Director Tom Jurich, and Chuck Smrt, president of a consulting firm specializing in NCAA compliance, the Compliance Group. The group has assisted Louisville since the investigation began, Klein said. He did not know much the Compliance Group had been paid for its work.
University officials found the penalties more severe than they had expected, said Smrt, a former NCAA investigator.
The NCAA actually based its punishment on its old penalty structure that was active when the incidents occurred -- if it had used the new one, the consequences would have been much tougher, the NCAA said.
Louisville had argued that it should be subject to fewer sanctions because the “monetary value” associated with the strippers was so low -- reasoning that Jo Potuto, who previously chaired the NCAA infractions committee and is a constitutional law professor at the University of Nebraska, found “absurd.”
Potuto said the Louisville case can’t be relied on as a precedent because the NCAA used the older penalty system. She stressed that she was dissecting the punishment as an outsider, and that there may be more nuance, but she found the punishment “light.”
“To suggest it’s not as significant because there’s no monetary value,” Potuto said, “well, I think parents would think paying a kid $1,000 is a whole lot more respectful in the way college athletes should be treated rather than giving them a prostitute.”
During Thursday’s conference, Pitino was unsmiling, at times clasping his hands in front of his face. Pitino, who has served as Louisville’s head coach since 2001, said that he had “lost faith” in the NCAA. When a reporter asked what he was taking responsibility for, he replied, “I’m not answering that question.”
He told the reporter he knew what was being “alluded to” and said that he had helped train 31 assistant coaches, all of whom went on to take leadership positions. He also said he never thought about resigning.
The NCAA considered Pitino to have committed a Level I infraction -- the most serious of all that would undermine the integrity of the collegiate athletics system.
In its report, NCAA found that Pitino hadn’t properly supervised McGee. The report states that Pitino, in an interview with investigators, said the responsibility of overseeing McGee fell to assistant coaches -- all of whom said they were unaware of that duty. In the news conference, Pitino characterized it differently, saying that the accountability was shared by everyone in the program.
McGee, a former Louisville player, handled recruiting visits and was installed in the dormitory in a watchdog type of role for the basketball players. The institution did not follow its own rules for when a guest, particularly a 16- or 17-year-old, would visit, the investigation found. For years, McGee would arrange for strippers to come in and dance for recruits and others, such as a recruit’s friends and enrolled players.
The escort would then take the recruit to a bedroom and offer either oral sex or intercourse. Some of the recruits would refuse and were uncomfortable, the report states.
The infractions committee never discovered evidence that Pitino knew about the strippers, and the NCAA punishments are not based on the assumption that he did. When recruits came to campus, he would ask innocuous questions -- like how they were enjoying the stay or saying how interested Louisville was in them.
Pitino and the athletics director, Jurich, appeared baffled that in the age of social media, the incidents weren't revealed earlier. Pitino called them "one of the greatest hidden things" he had ever observed. The NCAA report characterized the parties as similar to events in a fraternity house -- saying they occurred in the wee hours of the morning, when no one knew.
Potuto said she hoped and believed that the institution would not win its appeal. Louisville will petition an NCAA committee separate from the infractions panel.
The university has about two weeks to appeal, and the whole process will take about three months before a hearing date is set, Smrt said.
Pitino ended the conference Thursday with a pledge to fight the NCAA.
“I plan on staying here and winning multiple championships, not just one. I plan on going to multiple Final Fours, not just one. And that’s what leaders do. They lead the players they’re coaching. They ask for forgiveness for what happened for what one of your employees did. You were extremely contrite. I know the committee was sickened by it, but so were we. But we did not deserve what they gave us, and that’s the bottom line. They made a very large mistake. And our faith has to be put in the hands of the committee … of appeals. Because we are just as disappointed in what went on [as] the committee was, but we did not deserve any of it all. We will fight every single bit to the end. And we will move forward, because that’s what leaders do.”