Syracuse, North Carolina meet in Final Four ‘Infraction Bowl’

Published 3:09 am Friday, April 1, 2016

HOUSTON (AP) — Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim doesn’t like using the term “clean” to describe a college sports program, because the opposite of that would mean “dirty.”

Nothing is that black and white in the NCAA. For proof, check out the Final Four, where Boeheim’s team will play North Carolina in a semifinal pitting one program serving sanctions for lack of institutional control against another that’s dealing with one of the biggest academic scandals in the history of college sports — a case that could be resolved soon after the nets are cut down.

It’s a story line that speaks to the almost mandatory detachment of coaches from certain parts of their programs, in part to give them some “plausible deniability” when something goes amiss. It’s about the impenetrable rulebook of college sports, and how hard it is to keep a program from running afoul of anything in that book’s 405 pages. And, it’s about the realities of a sport that concludes each season with a tournament that bankrolls a significant chunk of the college sports budget via its $10.8 billion TV contract.

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“The coaches and administrators put parameters around all this that allow them to view themselves as ‘pretty good,’ given how the system works,” said Tom Palaima, a Classics professor at University of Texas, who has long railed against the supersized role of sports in college.

“Sports fans compartmentalize it. That way, everyone is able to live with themselves,” he said.

Along with scholarship reductions and vacating previous victories, the NCAA forced Boeheim to serve a nine-game suspension this season for violations that included impermissible benefits, academic misconduct and a lax drug-testing program.

The fact that the Orange are in Houston — after squeaking into the 68-team field as a 10 seed that many experts felt didn’t belong — is, to many, a statement about the ineffectiveness of the punishment. Even so, Boeheim believes his team got treated unfairly.

“Cheating, that’s not true,” the coach said about his program’s misdeeds. “Rules being broken, that’s a lot different.”

NCAA president Mark Emmert isn’t so interested in the coach’s semantics. During his news conference Thursday, Emmert said any inference that Syracuse didn’t serve its penalty “is simply wrong,” and even used Boeheim’s protestations about too-harsh penalties to drive home his point.

“I understand why, optically, people have a lot of questions around all that,” Emmert said. “The reality is … the university dealt with those sanctions, and this group of young men playing right now had nothing to do with those violations.”

Some find irony in the fact that while Syracuse plays on, players at SMU and Louisville are being penalized even though the majority of them didn’t have anything to do with troubles at their schools that resulted in both teams being excised from this year’s postseason. Had they been eligible, either team would’ve easily made the NCAA Tournament — possibly even taking a spot that eventually went to Syracuse.

In an interview with The Associated Press, SMU coach Larry Brown, who has had his share of run-ins with the NCAA, refused to talk about his school’s issues or the overall state of the sport.

“It’s a great event,” Brown said of March Madness. “I don’t care what other people think, those people scratching their heads. I always watch. I love the college game and I care about it.”

There’s been speculation that Brown’s friend, 65-year-old Carolina coach Roy Williams, might decide to retire after this season. He’s coaching in his eighth Final Four, and the NCAA investigation is expected to wrap up shortly after the tournament.

It’s an ugly scandal, involving athletes and other students who took no-show classes for nearly two decades, resulting in artificially high grades while administrators ignored the issue.

“It’s been such a big story, that I’m tired of it,” Williams said.

He views this trip to the Final Four as a tribute to the toughness of his players, none of whom were involved in the scandal, but all of whom have been able to set it aside and draw within two wins of the school’s sixth title.

Not everyone feels that way, and some take exception to watching two teams take the sport’s biggest stage, either of which could just as easily have been on the sideline had the NCAA responded differently.

“A student of mine said, ‘Hey, coaches are control freaks, and when these people say they knew absolutely nothing about what happened, it’s very hard to believe,”’ said Murray Sperber, the longtime critic of college sports who now teaches at Cal.

“I think certain fans, especially under 30, have become so cynical about college sports, and these scandals are a good example of why,” Sperber said.