Shi: Syracuse basketball: A cheater or the new way forward?

March 11, 2015, 12:51 a.m.

The best part of the Syracuse University basketball scandal is the school’s stubborn insistence in its own martyrdom. The sheer audacity (if not scope) of the academic violations would be surprising if North Carolina had not already shattered the NCAA embarrassment scale. Completely unperturbed, Syracuse defiantly proclaimed that they were still in control of the program. I am almost impressed.

Don’t worry about whether Syracuse was in control of the program – it wasn’t. Could it have ever controlled that program in the first place? I hesitate to criticize programs for the dreaded “lack of institutional control” because it’s hard to force compliance. Illegal private donors (“bagmen”) can steer players to one school or another without coaches knowing about it, and there’s only so much a school can do about these unaffiliated rulebreakers. But this cheating was coming from inside Syracuse itself. And while part of me is awed against my will by basketball director Stan Kissel’s chutzpah – he literally borrowed players’ email accounts in order to talk to their professors – part of me also wants the NCAA to knock this program back to the 1950s. University administrators actively broke the rules in order to keep basketball players eligible. If that’s not a “lack of institutional control,” I really don’t know what is.

To be clear, my perfect world is one where athletes get educations and programs don’t break NCAA rules. While Syracuse’s violations are hardly out of the ordinary, college sports aren’t necessarily bound to that culture of cheating. If nobody cheated, it’s hard to imagine that people would raise a fuss. People don’t cheer for teams because of cheating; they cheer for the programs they represent. Teams cheat because they want to win, and the more teams out there that cheat, the more reason there is to cheat. However, if programs were severely punished (and I mean severely) when they broke the rules, athletic programs could play by those rules without sacrificing competitiveness.

But that’s what we’re supposed to have with the NCAA, and yet nobody cares. The alternative to my dream is, to a certain extent, the unsightly present: If everybody is playing dirty, then nobody is. Most college athletes are clean. Most football and basketball players are probably clean. But 55 percent of big-time football programs have committed NCAA violations. 45 percent of men’s basketball teams have done the same. And as I’ll detail below, given that incentives to cheat still outweigh the NCAA’s weak attempts at regulation, the real figure is probably higher.

Syracuse can still stubbornly cast its basketball coach, Jim Boeheim, as a martyr because college revenue sports embody the Lance Armstrong principle: Cheating is a universal expectation, so the crimes of individual cheaters don’t have as much impact. Armstrong, once the winningest cyclists of all time, broke the rules in a sport where the rules barely mattered. (In fact, from 1996 to 2010, every single Tour de France champion except Carlos Sastre had either tested positive for cheating, confessed to cheating or been suspended for cheating.) Rulebreaking was so rampant, I wrote that “Armstrong will have to console himself with the fact that to be the finest cheater in an era of cheaters still means something.” That “something” is equally true in basketball. Cheating is par for the course these days – even clean coaches now operate under a cloud of suspicion – and Jim Boeheim will still go down in history as a Hall of Famer. Whatever his faults as a disciplinarian, he can certainly coach.

Considering college basketball’s debased standards of what is acceptable and what is not, does Boeheim really deserve our contempt? I have the privilege of being a fan of one of the three power-conference Division I programs that have never committed a major NCAA violation, but while I’m proud of Stanford Athletics, it’s hard to get self-righteous about this when so many schools are cheating that breaking the rules almost seems both expected and accepted.

Our unfortunate expectation of rulebreaking should push us towards some kind of conclusion on what we actually want from college sports. I realize that the NCAA is supposed to be about educating students and celebrating athletic excellence, but if nobody actually cares about the “educating students” part, does it really matter? In revenue sports, it often seems that Stanford is doing things its own way: above and beyond the call of duty, and therefore hardly representative of the norm. It’s as if Stanford decided to play football with two timeouts per half; it’s not illegal to do that, but it’s also not required. Boeheim’s Syracuse definitely broke the NCAA’s rules, but I don’t think Boeheim believed he was violating the unwritten rules, and as with Jerry Tarkanian, that is what history will remember him for. Besides, the NCAA only stripped him of 108 wins. He’s still the sixth-winningest coach of all time.

If the NCAA wants to change whether cheating is stigmatized as “cheating,” it’s going to have to make its stance clear, backing up its rhetoric with meaningful punishments. But the only things today’s NCAA consistently punishes are lying and resisting, and to its credit, Syracuse didn’t do either of these things. As a result, it got away pretty easily. Boeheim’s lost wins will personally sting, but the University is doing fine.

The punishment for Syracuse doesn’t amount to much – a meaningless nine-game suspension, the loss of three scholarships a year for four years (teams get 13 per year, so this just means benchwarmers will have to walk on), five years’ probation and a fine that the team can easily recoup. It’s pretty tough by NCAA standards, but that’s more of an indictment of the NCAA than it is of Syracuse. Banners fly forever, and given that Syracuse didn’t lose its 2003 national championship, a lot of schools would shrug and say, “Worth it.”

Now that Syracuse has escaped mostly unscathed and Penn State’s punishments have been largely erased, North Carolina is the only remaining basket case for the NCAA to hammer. We are all waiting. We need to know if we should actually care about whether revenue sport athletes go to school. Most football and men’s basketball players get educations, but even some cheating is still cheating.

If the NCAA decides to let UNC off, I guess I can’t really complain – considering the NCAA’s past actions, a slap on the wrist would actually be consistent. They’ve been caught red-handed, but historically, what does that matter? I will simply remind myself to stop buying the NCAA’s rhetoric about the “student-athlete” where revenue sports are concerned. I just wish the NCAA would hurry up and make a decision.

Winston Shi still needs a contact line. Give him a better one at wshi94 ‘at’

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

Login or create an account