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NCAA will likely remain without clue

Sun., Aug. 23, 2009

Targeting NCAA enforcement folly takes no more imagination than popping a cherry bomb into a lunch bucket, and the fun is about as fulfilling.

Still, it beats waiting for NCAA justice, or trying to reconcile it with fairness or logic.

The twisting in the wind has resumed for the football program at Eastern Washington University after athletic director Bill Chaves and his wingmen returned from an appearance in front of the appeals arm of the NCAA’s infractions committee. Eastern is trying to get undone one crippling penalty from the noogies handed down last February: a ban on postseason play for 2009.

But it’s unlikely the Eagles will know what they’re playing for prior to the season opener Sept. 5. A consultant guessed it might be four to six weeks before the appeals panel rules.

Things are just so darned complicated, you know. If the NCAA had jurisdiction, the O.J. trial would still be in voir dire.

Not that college jockdom’s Lennie Briscoes and Jack McCoys aren’t up to their eyeballs in crime and punishment. Two recent developments have stretched the boundaries of both comedy and credulity.

First, the infractions committee stripped the University of Memphis of 38 victories and its Final Four appearance of 2008, all because the guard Derrick Rose’s dubious SAT score was invalidated by the Educational Testing Service after he’d played his freshman season … with the blessing of the NCAA’s Eligibility Clearinghouse.

Yes, Memphis is on probation for following directions from the NCAA. Next: America tosses citizens in prison for paying taxes.

Meanwhile, with just 439 pages of law to enforce, the NCAA has now decreed that in addition to per diem for meals, schools may also provide bagels as nutritional snacks for athletes – but not cream cheese, which would be an extra benefit. We can hear the players swapping college war stories in NBA locker rooms now:

No. 1 pick: “A booster bought me a pimped-out Hummer. How’d you get your team on probation?”

Twelfth man: “Uh, Philly Whipped on sesame seed, man.”

A cream cheese incident may occur before the deal goes down on EWU, which would like to think it has the goods to make a run in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs this fall. Alas, under the regime of former coach Paul Wulff, the Eagles were admittedly guilty of a cornucopia of minor violations, which the infractions jury found significant enough to drop the hammer of a postseason ban. This revisited an old NCAA standby: punishing athletes who had no role in the rule-breaking.

What galls further is that the NCAA made it a point to sanction Wulff in his new gig at Washington State, yet in a manner that did not impact his job. He had to skip Wazzu’s first three days of practice, but was watching video of it within minutes of the final whistle and performed all his other duties. Yet it was Wulff’s general indifference to the violations that drew the stiffest rebuke from the NCAA.

It would be nice to know that Chaves addressed this, as well as less severe whacks given other schools for seemingly greater crimes, but he declined to reveal his approach to the appeal because “I want to be fair to the process until a decision is rendered.”

Good thinking. After all, the process has been so fair to Eastern.

But you wonder if the blackrobes even understand the concept behind the process. It was revealing that in a withering response to Florida State’s protest of its recent win-vacating sanctions, the NCAA noted that it was “confronted, for the first time in at least a decade, with egregious academic fraud.” And yet it decided it could not impose a postseason ban simply because it was “so widespread, spanning 10 different sports.”

In other words, cheat aggressively and you might have to rewrite your record book, but you can still play in the Orange Bowl.

It is not just the NCAA rulebook that screams for reform, but its penology, especially when innocent players suffer. Some have suggested monetary penalties against schools, but this would simply allow a USC to buy its way out of trouble in addition to buying the best players while NCAA gumshoes doze.

For an Eastern, a more apropos penalty would be to let it play in the postseason – but in unmarked uniforms and helmets with no school logo. TV and radio announcers would be obliged to point out why the Eagles were so outfitted; news accounts would mention the school’s transgressions prominently. The fallout would grow the further they advanced. The results could never appear in the EWU record book, no banners would be raised, no mention of the games could be made in fundraising or recruiting – but the players would still have their opportunity and memories.

And make the school foot the playoff travel bill rather than the NCAA – forcing it to dig deep to prove its commitment. If it can’t, no greater recruiting sanction could the NCAA invoke.

Surely there are other alternative punishments. Maybe the NCAA membership could get together and talk about it – over bagels. Hold the cream cheese.

John Blanchette can be reached at or (509) 459-5509.


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