Even just a skim through the player bios on the Swarthmore athletics website quickly reveals a common trend, not only applicable to Swarthmore but all of NCAA Division III athletics. In response to the question “Why Swarthmore?”, almost every student praises the college’s emphasis on high-level academics over athletics. This past week, an unfortunate revelation about a widespread fraudulent recruiting system in NCAA Division I men’s basketball proved each Swarthmore student’s point all the more.
According to CNN, following the arrest of 10 coaches, executives, and advisers, the FBI debriefed their investigations into two related schemes to illegally convince high-level recruits to attend certain universities. In one, athletic guidance advisers bribed assistant coaches at the University of Southern California, Oklahoma State University, Auburn University, and University of Arizona to persuade recruits to hire these same advisers. These advisers also participated in the second scheme with sports brand Adidas, paying out cash to recruits to commit to certain universities, including the University of Louisville and the respective universities of the aforementioned coaches. Given the prestige and perennial success of these programs, the situation carries far more than just legal weight, at least from an athletic standpoint.
Apart from the FBI investigation and subsequent charges of wire fraud, bribery, and conspiracy, the controversy has also tarnished the reputation of the basketball programs at the involved universities. All administrations and basketball programs have denied any involvement or knowledge of the fraud, fired the coaches involved, and continue to cooperate with authorities. Since many argued that the head coaches either had or should have had some awareness of the illegal actions, the scandal proved to be the last straw for legendary University of Louisville basketball head coach Rick Pitino’s famed tenure. With this fraud scandal under his authority as well as other scandals including a previous NCAA violation for hiring prostitutes for prospective recruits, both Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich were placed on administrative leave, likely to be formally fired soon.
However, the greatest potential implication of this controversy has come out of the growing pressure on the NCAA to impose the “death penalty” on the University of Louisville’s basketball program. Although the “death penalty” has not been levied against any NCAA Division I program since SMU’s 1987 football season, the program’s current probation and culture of violating rules could merit the daunting punishment, which would indefinitely ban all men’s basketball operations and activities. With the school’s quick reaction and staff overhaul, this severe of a punishment seems unlikely; however, the program may not be able to escape its harrowed past. On top of that, the Louisville basketball program has been one of the most successful throughout history, particularly in recent memory. Therefore, the death penalty would not only punish the program, but greatly affect the finances of the entire institution. The implications of the charges go far beyond the legal framework and have the potential to affect entire schools.
At the same time, apart from the illegality of the men’s actions, there are also immense ethical implications of convincing recruits to attend academic institutions for reasons other than their individual suitability. Particularly at an academically-oriented school like Swarthmore, the athletics department thankfully does not have to face the same financial pressures. The ethical dilemma also adds to the ongoing debate over whether NCAA student athletes participating in billion-dollar industries should receive compensation apart from scholarships. Similarly, there are also debates taking place regarding whether collegiate level athletics have lost the true spirit of the game, and have instead focused too heavily on performance, profits, and creating professional athletes. Although this issue is unlikely to resolve the greater debates, it serves as just another example for the advocates of the student athlete’s cause.
In the end, the implications and legacy of this narrative are still being written in the impending decisions to be made by the NCAA and the Department of Justice. However, the whole situation has undoubtedly left a mark on far more than the legal records of a few individuals, impacting the reputations of coaches, brands, programs, and even whole universities. Unfortunately, in this situation it would appear the poor decisions of a few will have tremendous implications for many.