Louisville & the Gift that Keeps on Giving

On February 28, 2017, in SELS Blog, by Matthew Weiss

By: Reece Cooke*

As the NCAA and Louisville prepare to be go head to head under our legal system to find justice in the case of the Louisville scandal that was brought to light in 2015, I look deeper into the gift that keeps on giving.  When do impermissible benefits become so outrageous and outlandish as to constitute a full blown lack of institutional control for a program?  Is there a line to be crossed or a general rule of thumb? Is there a grey area where things should and do get overlooked, or is there a zero tolerance policy that should be enforced with punishing outcomes for rule breakers?  Why is it that we continue to see the gift that keeps on giving in the form of “incentives” for players to do one thing or another?

In 2015, the Louisville men’s basketball program and their fabled head coach, Rick Pitino, were hit with a plethora of allegations that rocked the programs foundation and attacked the character of one of the best programs and best coaches in D1 basketball.  A paid escort by the name of Katina Powell wrote a book called “Breaking Cardinal Rules”, in which she depicted a detailed and scathing account of services she provided for up to as many as seventeen basketball recruits, with all of roughly 5,500 dollars spent by then director of basketball operations, Andre McGee. [i]

McGee has been labelled as the leader of the prostitution scandal. [ii]   So why is it then that Pitino has received so much heat for the acts that transpired?  The NCAA, up to this point, has not charged Pitino formally with any violation, but they have said that Pitino failed to property manage and monitor his program as head coach and did not keep abreast of what was happening right under his control and supervision. [iii]  Many within the Louisville camp have jumped to the defense of the head coach and said that it is not his fault, and that there is no way he would have been able to have any knowledge that theses impermissible benefits took place. [iv]  However, the NCAA has bylaws that make it the coach’s responsibility to monitor and make themselves aware of situations such as this. [v]

Upon realization of the potential consequences that the program could be facing, Louisville went ahead and took the initiative to give self-imposed sanctions to the program with a post-season ban in 2015, reduced scholarships and reduced recruiting access. [vi]  Their hope is that this will mitigate any future punishments that the NCAA will try to impose on Pitino and the program in the event that the investigation warrants more punishments. [vii]  Louisville is adamant, however, that coach Pitino was not involved in and had no way of knowing that this was occurring. [viii] Many outside the Louisville camp don’t have as much sympathy for the famed head coach, though. [ix] Many think it is positively outlandish that there can be prostitutes on a campus providing impermissible benefits to your players and you are not aware of it. [x]

Over the course of the next couple of months, Louisville will find out its fate in the eyes of the NCAA.  I believe that there will be more punishment on top of the self-imposed sanctions that the program initiated. We have seen countless accounts of players receiving benefits under the table and behind closed doors that simply aren’t allowed.  Cash, cars, prostitutes, you name it, and it has been used to bribe and sway players to act one way or another.  Now I am all for players getting some sort of stipend/payment for their efforts, in particular athletes at the D1 level.  It MUST, however, be in a structured and unified manner and certainly not in the form of prostitution.   It should be given from the NCAA in an appropriate manner, but I digress.

I have seen media members throw around the term a “lack of institutional control”, and while I do not agree necessarily that this is entirely Rick Pitino’s fault, I do think he must be held accountable for his program.  Other big name coaches who have received stiff penalties/suspensions for breaking NCAA rules include SMU’s former head coach, Larry Brown, and Jim Boeheim, who both received multiple game suspensions for violations. [xi]  I believe that Pitino deserves at least that.  This sort of blatant disregard for the rules of the NCAA cannot be tolerated even if it is not entirely the fault of the head coach.  Ask McGee and I’m sure he will tell you that it was fun and games or just to get a competitive advantage.  When you recruit with the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse basketball programs, hell – maybe you do need a competitive advantage but not like this one and not in this manner. A line must be drawn on a case by case basis and in this case here, the line was certainly overstepped.   Too often are teams not held responsible for not making the right choices.   As a former D1 athlete myself, with many D1 friends also, I have heard multiple stories.  Programs need to understand and have clear boundaries.  To make an example out of Pitino may be harsh but it could be just what is needed to send waves of caution to teams throughout the NCAA so that the gift that keeps on giving can cease and desist before trouble continues to brew.

*Staff Writer, Villanova University Sports Law Society Blog; J.D. Candidate, May 2018, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.

[i] Dana O’Neil, NCAA Charges Rick Pitino with Failure to Monitor; Louisville Dodges Penalties (Oct. 20, 2016), http://www.espn.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/17839841/rick-pitino-louisville-cardinals-coach-charged-failure-monitor-basketball-program.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Adam Wells, Rick Pitino, Louisville Refuting NCAA Allegations from Escort Scandal, Bleacher Report (Jan. 25, 2017), http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2689222-rick-pitino-louisville-refuting-ncaa-allegations-from-escort-scandal.

[iv] Marc Tracy, Louisville’s Rich Pitino Claims Dominion, Except When Scandal Hits, The New York Times (Oct. 20, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/21/sports/ncaabasketball/rick-pitino-louisville-allegations.html?_r=0.

[v] Id.

[vi] See Well, supra note 3.

[vii] Id.

[viii] See Tracy, supra note 4.

[ix] Dana O’Neil, Pitino Fighting NCAA Allegations on Escorts (Jan. 26, 2017), http://www.espn.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/18553508/louisville-pitino-fighting-ncaa-allegations-escort-scandal.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.


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