It’s been a 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 his courage and sacrifice, Ramsey took a giant leap 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. (OK, I know you love it: Here are my takes on Escort-Gate.) While Coach Rick Pitino has survived for the time being, no one expected the salacious story to disappear from the public eye or escape NCAA sanction. 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. By self-imposing a one-year ban on post-season play — including opting out of the ACC championships and the NCAA tournament — U of L hit itself where it hurts most. I’ve always felt that forfeiting past wins — even in an ignominious case such as Penn State — serves as weak tea: a lame, impotent, Stalinist effort to rewrite history in an age when nothing disappears from the Internet. By contrast, abandoning a chance for future glory, particularly in a year when the Cards were poised to make a deep post-season run, is a gut punch to L1C4 Nation, to its players, and especially to Trey Lewis and Damion Lee, graduate transfers who came to Louisville precisely for the opportunity to pursue 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 by far the most effective and powerful way to seize the attention of the 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. Louisville’s transgressions were pretty disgusting, indicative of a systematic failure that needed be redressed through strong sanctions. But the university’s failures in Escort-gate pale in comparison to what I have argued was the most morally offensive institutional misconduct in the history of college sports.
To refresh a painful memory: Over an 18 year period, more than three thousand UNC students enrolled in a series of sham African and Afro-American Studies classes, which provided them with respectable grades despite never having to take a test, or even to show up in class. According to a UNC-commissioned report, the scheme was engineered 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 which A’s and B’s were bestowed simply for signing up. While no top school officials or leading coaches were implicated in wrongdoing, the classes were an open secret on campus – word spread throughout the fraternity and sorority system – in fact, more than half of the students impacted were not athletes. The scandal violated the very underpinning of college athletics, and harmed the very people that academic institutions are responsible to protect: the student body.
When the UNC report was released in October 2014, the public was outraged, and media criticism was fierce: one volatile wag even suggested that the Tar Heels should receive the death penalty. And yet…the NCAA investigation still drags on, with delay after delay sparked by new damning allegations. Coach Roy Williams even pronounced recently that the foreboding scandal “cloud is beginning to lift.”
Well, bless his heart.
Let’s be clear: An ACC and NCAA postseason from which the Louisville withdraws 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. On March 1, Margaret Spellings will step in as the new President of the University of North Carolina. She’s no novice to policy, politics and public relations: 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. 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? Perhaps. But as NCAA President Mark Emmert stated, the UNC scandal “is a case that potentially strikes at the heart of what higher education is about.” And it’s high time that college sports takes its essential mission seriously, and halts the long, slow devolution of the term “student athlete” into a oxymoronic punch line.