Which of the follow- ing NCAA schools is currently on three years’ probation for “a lack of institutional control?”
California Institute of Technology.
Yes, the answer is (c), better known as Caltech, one of the world’s great engineering schools.
Before we detail what dastardly deeds these nerds-in-Nikes committed, let’s take a step back to consider the NCAA and its higher-profile member schools.
I would venture to say that virtually every Division I football and men’s basketball program commits an NCAA violation – some major, some middling – on a weekly basis. This is a product of two basic truths:
1. The NCAA rulebook is rather encyclopedic, byzantine and far-flung; it’s entirely possible you can be punished for changing a light bulb the wrong way.
2. Because of financial pressures to win at all costs, many schools routinely break rules; the adage, “It’s not cheating unless you’re caught,” still rules the day.
Every Big 12 school has been on probation at some point. In the SEC, only Missouri and Vanderbilt never have been on probation; in the Pac-12, only Stanford and Washington State never have been on probation.
Speaking of which, Southern California is literally on probation about 25 percent of the time; in fact, to cut out a bunch of paperwork, I would just place USC on probation for the third quarter of every football game.
(Hey, allowing Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo onto your athletic fields is not exactly like letting Jonas Salk and Stephen Hawking through your library doors. Then again, USC stockpiles running backs like Johns Hopkins stockpiles lab reports.)
I doubt Lane Kiffin can brush his teeth in the morning without committing an NCAA violation.
I hate singling out USC – Correction: In truth, I love singling out USC – but it is a large, visible symbol of a great academic center losing its way in pursuit of greater athletic glory.
Anyway, as it turns out, Los Angeles is home to both USC and Caltech, just 15 smog-filled miles separating a habitual offender from a first-time offender.
This is the thing about Caltech – if those folks are cheating, they’re doing a lousy job of it. The baseball team’s lost 237 straight games, the men’s basketball team ended a 310-game conference losing streak two seasons ago, the women’s volleyball team has lost all 168 of its conference games and the men’s water polo team had a seven-year winless streak.
There are no athletic scholarships at Caltech – you have to be a student- scholar to be admitted.
So what was Division III Caltech doing wrong?
In the first three weeks of each trimester, students there are allowed to “sample” classes and “shop” for courses before registering for them.* These students are technically part-time until they enroll for their courses, and part-time students cannot participate in NCAA sports. This happened with 30 Caltech athletes in 12 sports between 2007 and 2010.
(*-Here are some of the classes Caltech offers: “Optical Wave Propagation,” “Markov Chains, Discrete Stochastic Processes and Applications” and “Signal Transduction and Biomechanics in Eukaryotic Cell Morphogenesis.” When I matriculated at the University of Maryland, I took “Sociology of the Soap Opera.” For real. If I had Caltech’s course load in College Park, I’d still be 18 credits short of graduating.)
Caltech turned itself in.
What did the NCAA do? They threw the book at ‘em.
(At least when you throw the book at Caltech, someone there can actually read it.)
Three years’ probation, a one-year postseason ban in the affected sports, vacated wins gained with ineligible athletes and a ban on off-campus recruiting.
The long arm of the NCAA law comically reached out to prevent Caltech from competing for championships it never wins and to cease recruiting it never does.
(Banning Caltech from postseason is akin to forbidding Pope Benedict XVI from breakdancing.)
The message is clear: Somewhere in the heart of Kentucky, John Calipari sleeps uneasily tonight.
Ask The Slouch
Q. I saw you tweet about Nate Silver – I guess he’s too smart for an old-schooler such as yourself. (Marc Weinberg; Olney, Md.)
A. I don’t doubt Silver’s acumen, but whenever I say anything bad about advanced statistical analysis – in terms of sports – I am derided by the savants about how their avalanche of statistical debris fosters a deeper understanding of the game. Alas, I prefer fostering a deeper understanding of life, which entails the simple realization that we do not need a deeper understanding of the game.
Q. You’re an L.A. guy – you OK with whacking Mike Brown that quickly? (John Lowry; Indianapolis)
A. The man was trying to run the Princeton offense without a single Ivy Leaguer on the Lakers roster. Duh.
Q. You taking sides in the Mark Cuban-Donald Trump Twitter war? (Benjamin Hoff; Fort Worth, Texas)
A. Gotta back the Maverick over the Madman.