It’s been aÂ painful, tumultuous annus horribilis for Jim Ramsey. But on Friday, the embattled University of Louisville President — with a long career of accomplishment in academia and government — may have had his finest hour. Through hisÂ courage and sacrifice, Ramsey tookÂ a giant leapÂ toward restoring the integrity of his university and its athletic department.
KSR regulars won’t need me to rehash the Cardinal basketball scandal that forced this painful moment. Â (OK, I knowÂ youÂ love it: Here are my takes on Escort-Gate.) Â While Coach Rick Pitino has survived for the time being, no one expected the salacious story to disappear from the public eye or escape NCAAÂ sanction. Â And while the university promised a thorough investigation, the skeptical press and cynical public expected more excuses, foot-dragging, and perhaps a gentle self-flagellation.
But Jim Ramsey didn’t take the easy way out. Â By self-imposing a one-year ban on post-season play — including opting out of the ACC championships and the NCAA tournamentÂ — U of L hit itself where it hurts most. I’ve always felt that forfeiting past wins — even in an ignominious case such asÂ Penn State — serves as weak tea: a lame, impotent, Stalinist effort to rewrite history in an age when nothing disappears from the Internet. Â By contrast, abandoning a chance for futureÂ glory, particularly in a year when the Cards were poised to make a deep post-season run, is a gut punch to L1C4Â Nation, to its players, and especially to Trey Lewis and Damion Lee, graduate transfers who came to Louisville precisely for the opportunity to pursueÂ the Final Four.
In a perfect world, perhaps Pitino was correct to argue that severe financial sanctions to the institution would have been more appropriate than punishing the players and fan base. But in the ugly, ethically-challenged construct that is college basketball today, shielding the squad from the sport’s biggest spotlight is byÂ far theÂ most effectiveÂ and powerful way to seize the attention of theÂ league and public — and to help prevent such behavior from transpiring again.
The sourest note of Friday’s press conference was the grim realization that Jim Ramsey’s prior academic home — the University of North Carolina — will, in all likelihood, still be playing in late March. Â Louisville’s transgressions were pretty disgusting, indicative of a systematic failure that needed be redressed through strong sanctions. Â But theÂ university’s failures in Escort-gate pale in comparison to what I have argued was the most morally offensive institutionalÂ misconduct in the history of college sports.
To refresh a painful memory:Â Over an 18 year period, more than three thousand UNCÂ students enrolled in a series of sham African and Afro-American Studies classes, which provided themÂ with respectable grades despite never having to take a test, or even to show up in class. Â According to a UNC-commissioned report, theÂ scheme was engineeredÂ by a cynical cabal of faculty members, administrators, and academic advisers, who conspired to keep athletes eligible to play by steering them to classes in which the only requirement was a single paper that was never read, but in whichÂ Aâ€™s and Bâ€™s were bestowed simply for signing up. Â WhileÂ no top school officials or leading coaches wereÂ implicated in wrongdoing, the classes were an open secret on campus â€” word spread throughout the fraternity and sororityÂ system â€” in fact, more than half of the students impacted wereÂ notÂ athletes. Â The scandal violated the very underpinning of college athletics, and harmed the very people that academic institutions are responsibleÂ to protect: the student body.
When the UNC report was released in October 2014, the public was outraged, and mediaÂ criticism was fierce:Â one volatile wagÂ even suggested that the Tar Heels should receive the death penalty. Â And yet…the NCAA investigation still drags on, with delay after delay sparked by new damning allegations. Â Coach Roy Williams even pronounced recently that the foreboding scandalÂ “cloud is beginning to lift.”
Well, bless his heart.
Let’s be clear: Â An ACC and NCAA postseason from which the Louisville withdrawsÂ and in which UNC plays is a systemic sham, an ethical hypocrisy, and a blot on an already morally-challenged game.
It’s not too late. Â On March 1, Margaret Spellings will step in as the new President of the University of North Carolina. Â She’s no novice to policy, politics and public relations: Â Spellings most prominently served as the U.S. Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush and was the leading champion of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative. Â While some might disagree with her politics and priorities, no one can contest her commitment to educational integrity.
Spellings could do nothing better to launch her tenure on a note of integrity than to follow Jim Ramsey’s lead and announce a self-imposed ban on postseason play for the Tar Heels.
Carolina Dreaming? Â Perhaps. Â But asÂ NCAA President Mark EmmertÂ stated,Â the UNC scandal â€œis a case that potentially strikes at the heart of what higher education is about.â€ Â And it’s high time that college sports takes its essential mission seriously, andÂ halts the long, slow devolution of the term â€œstudent athleteâ€ into a oxymoronic punch line.