John Clay

John Clay: Louisville’s postseason ban might be unfair to its players, but it’s fair for college basketball

Coach Rick Pitino spoke to the media after the University of Louisville announced Feb. 5 that it was self-imposing a ban on tournament play for the men’s basketball team this season amid ongoing investigations into a sex scandal.
Coach Rick Pitino spoke to the media after the University of Louisville announced Feb. 5 that it was self-imposing a ban on tournament play for the men’s basketball team this season amid ongoing investigations into a sex scandal. Associated Press

It has been nearly a week since the University of Louisville announced it was self-imposing a postseason ban on its basketball program, presumably with regard to the “stripper scandal” that allegedly involved players and members of the basketball staff.

Since then, we’ve heard a lot about how unfair the punishment is to the current players, and maybe even coaches, who had nothing to do with the scandal, who are paying the price for something in which they were not involved. And there is obviously some truth to that.

Here’s my question: What about fairness with regard to other schools and basketball programs?

Let’s say Rick Pitino got his wish. Since U of L announced its ban, the Louisville coach has talked at length about how the “system is broken,” about how a postseason ban is a draconian measure, how it would be far better to levy a hefty fine against the school and dock the head coach, say, half his salary.

If that were the punishment, however, and Louisville was allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament, would it be fair to the team that got bumped out by the Cardinals’ presence — a team that we presume was following the rules that Louisville apparently was not?

Let’s say last Friday’s announcement didn’t happen; Louisville enters this year’s Big Dance and, with a fortunate bounce here or there, wins the NCAA title. How is that going to look? What are people going to say about the NCAA and college athletics in general when a program that allegedly used prostitutes and strippers to entertain recruits over a four-year period wins the biggest title in college basketball?

To me, whether the decision was made by James Ramsey, the school’s president, or Tom Jurich, the school’s athletic director, U of L made the correct move. If you make a mistake, admit your mistake, take corrective action, ask for a fair verdict and move on. The sooner the better.

The interesting thing that has happened over the past week is that the narrative has shifted. Instead of being the villain, the Cards somehow have become the victim. Instead of outrage over what happened in Billy Minardi Hall, the outrage is about the current players — especially graduate transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis — being robbed of an opportunity to participate in the postseason.

Pitino has a lot to do with that shift. For a coach who says he can’t talk about the situation, he sure does a lot of talking about the situation. He talked about it during last Friday’s news conference. He talked about it again after U of L’s win over Boston College at the Yum Center on Saturday. He talked about it again Tuesday morning on ESPN’s Mike & Mike radio program. He can’t stop talking about it.

What Pitino doesn’t mention is that he’s lucky to still have his job. If he somehow didn’t know, he should have known. He’s the man responsible for the program and all that goes with it, whether it be good (his spectacular salary) or bad (paying the price for something he contends he knew nothing about).

Will Pitino lose his job? The guess here is no. He’s too good a coach. It’s money that matters, now more than ever. It’s more likely he’ll be hit with a multigame suspension by the NCAA. Will Pitino choose to leave on his own? He didn’t exactly close the door on that possibility during his Mike & Mike interview, saying he always takes time at the end of the season to reassess.

For Louisville, we now know the end of its season will be March 5 after the regular-season finale at Virginia. That might not be fair for the current Cardinals, but it is fair for the program and the rest of college basketball.

In this instance, it’s not the name on the back of the jersey that counts, it’s the name on the front.

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