In the latter stages of 2020, we have a new trend in college athletics: the self-serving self-imposed ban.
On Tuesday, Arizona became the third school in the last five weeks to issue itself a postseason ban for rules violations, sidelining its men’s basketball team for the 2021 NCAA tournament. Earlier this month, it was LSU that gave itself a football bowl ban. And in November, Auburn banned its men’s basketball team from the ’21 Big Dance.
Schools are falling on swords all over the place. Except the swords are made of styrofoam, not steel. This is all an act, designed to appear painful while attempting to avoid real pain.
The new page in the playbook: take a ban with a team that is below the school’s usual standard, in a season that is a mess, and then expect credit for it when it’s time for an infractions hearing. Arizona is 7–1 but lost its only game away from home and has a No. 38 Ken Pomeroy ranking, after being in the top 20 six of the previous eight seasons. Auburn is 6–2 and No. 65 in the Pomeroy Ratings, its lowest ranking in four seasons, and star freshman recruit Sharife Cooper has not played due to an eligibility inquiry. And LSU’s bowl ban is particularly hilarious, given the Tigers’ 5–5 record (3–5 at the time) and high number of player opt-outs.
This is yet another loophole in the NCAA crime-and-punishment process that schools and their legal counsel are happy to exploit when it suits them. If punishment is inevitable, administer some of it yourself at a time and manner of your choosing. Then act like you’re taking the whole thing verrrry seriously.
“Every time a school self-imposes, the cynicism level rises in the sport,” said ESPN analyst and former college coach Fran Fraschilla.
“Don’t think you’re getting over on all of us here,” said fellow ESPN analyst Dan Dakich, another former college coach. “If I were the NCAA, I would say, ‘It’s great that you did that. We’re not going to take any of it into consideration. That’s your year [ban]. Now here come our years.’ “
That ultimately could be the way these cases are resolved. While the NCAA can and likely will factor in self-imposed sanctions, it also can apply more of its own if the violations merit multi-year bans. In all three infractions cases, the schools have been charged with Level I violations—the most serious in the NCAA’s rulebook. Depending on aggravating or mitigating circumstances, the sanctions can increase or decrease, and it seems probable that NCAA Enforcement has or will seek to have some charges in these cases classified as aggravated.
We don’t know that for sure because, in the cases of Arizona and Auburn, the schools continue to hide their Notices of Allegations from the public. (LSU’s case, which is tied to a voluminous basketball investigation, remains ongoing. A formal NOA hasn’t been delivered as of yet.) This is another loophole NCAA bylaws have created, allowing schools to keep details of their scandals a secret from their fans. And many of them that were implicated in the federal probe of college basketball corruption have chosen that dodge.
In announcing its postseason ban Tuesday, Arizona threw multiple former assistant coaches under the bus, though not by name. We do know that Emanuel “Book” Richardson did time for his part in the bribery scandal, and the contract of Mark Phelps was not renewed in 2019. Were there others involved? That remains unclear.
“The decision is an acknowledgement that the NCAA’s investigation revealed that certain former members of the MBB staff displayed serious lapses in judgment and a departure from the University’s expectation of honest and ethical behavior,” the school release said. “It is also in accord with the penalty guidelines of the NCAA for the type of violations involved. This decision also reinforces the institution’s commitment to accountability and integrity as well as serving the best long-term interests of the University and the Men’s Basketball program.”
The last sentence there lays it on a bit thick, given that the “commitment to accountability and integrity” has included retaining head coach Sean Miller for three years since the scandal engulfed his program. Miller hasn’t been held accountable for anything that occurred, even though NCAA rules stipulate that he should be, and ultimately likely will be. Head coach control legislation means that violations committed by staff members—now acknowledged by the school itself—are the responsibility of the head coach, so there seems to be a high likelihood of sanctions coming Miller’s way. Yet the school continues to stand by him like a sacred cow, as does Auburn with Bruce Pearl and LSU with Will Wade.
“Louisville did a good job getting rid of everybody,” Dakich said, referencing the house-cleaning of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich in 2017. “I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to crush them with more penalties. Arizona has been saying ‘screw you’ to everybody.”
Indeed, it’s always interesting to see schools abruptly abandon tenacious defenses of their implicated programs once they see the handwriting on the wall. Arizona has battled the NCAA so vigorously that earlier this month it requested a transfer of its case to the Independent Accountability Resolution Process, citing a desire for “a neutral and unbiased tribunal to hear the evidence, consider the legal and factual arguments, and issue a decision that is fair and just.”
Now, the school is opting out of 2021 March Madness. The ability to do so, and the timing, both rub Fraschilla the wrong way.
“I’m against self-imposed bans, period,” he said. “Obviously, it’s the equivalent of plea bargaining. But if the NCAA is doing its job—which is often questionable—they should be the ones meting out the penalties. I think on the whole it’s a terrible idea. To do it in the middle of the season is even worse.”
Fraschilla cited the handcuffing of Arizona players who could have transferred if the decision was made earlier—the school has had the Notice of Allegations in its possession for more than two months now, and at least five weeks before the Wildcats played their first game. Not to mention the fact that Arizona has been in the crosshairs of both federal and NCAA probes since 2017, and is only now getting around to any act of contrition.
“When you self-impose two years in? Uh, no,” Fraschilla said. “The cynicism meter continues to rise.”