After the University of Louisville men’s basketball team was linked to a widespread kickback scheme that federal officials have been investigating, as the U.S. attorney for New York revealed last week, the public pondered: Would the program, one of the top performers in the country, be killed?
The National Collegiate Athletic Association hasn’t imposed the “death penalty” on a Division I program since 1987, when the football team at Southern Methodist University was punished for repeated violations over a number of years, including payments to players. But Louisville, at least on the surface, seems to fit the basic criteria -- multiple significant violations of NCAA rules -- for a competition ban, which usually lasts at least one season.
It’s the most severe punishment the NCAA can hand down.
Former NCAA officials and experts offered mixed assessments of whether the association has maintained the clout to carry out the death penalty now, or whether Louisville’s indiscretions would even warrant it.
The New York-based United States attorney’s office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation shook college athletics last week by announcing corruption and bribery charges against high-ranking Adidas executives and four assistant or associate basketball coaches at major programs across the country. It also surfaced that Adidas, which sponsors Louisville's sports program, and others allegedly paid a six-figure sum to a high school recruit to direct him to Louisville.
Louisville’s high-profile head coach, Rick Pitino, who led the Cardinals to the 2013 national title, was ousted. Though Pitino officially was placed on unpaid leave per the terms of his contract, which requires 10 days’ notice before he can be terminated, his lawyer said he is “effectively fired.” The athletics director, Tom Jurich, was also put on leave, and the five-star recruit referenced in the federal complaint, Brian Bowen, has been suspended from all athletics-related activities, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.
The NCAA already slapped the men’s basketball program with a four-year probation and gave Pitino a five-game suspension earlier this year, following revelations that a former Cardinals staffer sneaked escorts into university dormitories. The women were paid to strip and perform sex acts on potential recruits, some of whom were underage at the time. The association ordered certain games vacated, including, most likely, the national title.
Initially, the university intended to appeal the NCAA ruling on the prostitution scandal and said it would “stand behind” Pitino, who has remained relatively quiet since the Adidas allegations were announced. Via his lawyer, he called the allegations “a shock” -- his only other public statement was a text message to a radio show host, posted to Twitter on Friday, saying this “had been tough.”
“It’s been three days [and] I miss my players so much,” Pitino wrote in the text.
But the death penalty requires more than a single corrupt coach, or one bad administrator, said Josephine Potuto, former head of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I Committee on Infractions, which adjudicates cases of alleged rule breaking -- a program must be so infiltrated by abuse of the rules as to necessitate it being shut down.
“The fact that they’re already on probation will be a factor, no question, but it’s got to be more than a one-off here, one-off there,” said Potuto, the Richard H. Larson Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Part of the reason the NCAA may be disinclined to stop a program, even for a season, is the ripple effect to other institutions -- other colleges that have never been implicated in anything would need to scramble to adjust conference schedules, and television contracts, set out years in advance, would also be affected, Potuto said.
Some athletes would transfer, too, which research has shown often causes their grades to fall, Potuto said.
Though a program might only be temporarily banned from competition, it’s hard for it to recover afterward, Potuto said, explaining how degraded the SMU football team was following the death penalty.
The aftermath of the death penalty, when Southern Methodist players finally returned to the field in 1989, was called "devastating," with multiple teams inflicting terrible losses on the Mustangs. Most players transferred away from the institution, which had been placed on probation for several similar violations before the NCAA cracked down. The scandal reached all the way to the office of Texas's then governor, William T. Clements, who was involved in the payments.
NCAA enforcers must sometimes operate with limited information when laying down their sanctions, Potuto said -- sometimes federal officials, particularly high-level ones, won’t share all the facts about a pending criminal case with the association, leaving them to function with what has been made public.
A former NCAA investigator, J. Brent Clark, said he doubted the death penalty would be invoked at Louisville, though he predicted that the Louisville coaching staff and athletics director would be replaced, and some of the players kicked off.
Clark said that the death penalty would “destroy” the program and, because the institution is still in debt on a new arena, without the money basketball brings in, Louisville could possibly default on its bonds.
He cited the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill academic fraud as a case that deserved the death penalty more. Over a nearly 20-year period, some employees steered as many as 3,000 students -- half of them athletes -- toward no-show classes that never met and for which the only assignment was a single paper that received a high grade no matter the content. Because students there were “robbed” of an education and the case spanned both the academic and athletic sides of the institution, Clark said, the UNC basketball program should be disbanded -- even though it might not fit the NCAA rules of having multiple violations. UNC and the association remain locked in a battle over the allegations.
Donna A. Lopiano, president of Sports Management Resources and a longtime women's athletics director at the University of Texas at Austin, said she hoped this scandal would prompt an overhaul of the NCAA system. The death penalty may not be appropriate for Louisville, she said, because by the time the NCAA can levy its consequences, most of the transgressors would likely have departed the institution.
“I’m hopeful that this forces the NCAA to re-examine their whole system of under-the-table compensation. We can’t have coaches making five million bucks,” she said. (Pitino earns nearly $7.8 million annually.)
Pundits and Kentucky locals -- even die-hard fans -- have called for the death penalty.
Dalton Ray, sports editor of The Louisville Cardinal, the student newspaper, and a self-proclaimed “fan boy,” in a column advocated for Pitino’s exit, despite his golden record.
“The program needs a culture change. Blow it up and start from scratch,” Ray wrote. “Who knows what will happen to the athletic department as a whole if the death penalty is the answer, but it’s becoming the final resort. The financial hit of a death penalty is one thing, but the hit to the fans is another. They need a fresh slate. Louisville fans deserve better.”
College sports columnist Pat Forde wrote in a column that this scandal exposed the dirtiness of athletics programs across the country -- and that other coaches are “running scared.”
“The damage to it will be immense and long-lasting,” Forde said of the impact of the FBI investigation on college basketball. “The NCAA will have a hard fight to make anyone believe in its breadwinner sport again. Which is why the first order of business needs to be blasting Louisville basketball into nonexistence.”
“Shut it down.”