As the current NCAA scandal unfolds and we hear more and more players, coaches, and schools accused of violating the NCAA rulebook we are inundated with thoughts from fans and media about what should be done. A common refrain among ESPN experts and fans of implicated schools is speculation about the reform they hope is coming for the fool-hearted NCAA vision of amateurism. While you can count me among those hoping that some smart people come up with a new system when the dust settles, that’s not what I want to hear right now. Right now I want the NCAA to show no mercy and mount some skulls on their wall.
Where does that harsh take come from? Simply put – Michigan has crossed swords with the NCAA three times since I started rooting for the basketball team and in all three cases the punishment was slow, painful, and excessive. I don’t like hearing that Miles Bridges can pull two twenties out of his pocket and avoid missing any games after what the NCAA has previously done to Michigan. Since I realize that many readers of this site are too young to remember the trilogy of NCAA wars, allow me to recap. Much like the original Star Wars Trilogy, the most meaningful story is the middle episode.
**Note - despite my efforts, this story is a long one to tell. I've placed links throughout and created a TL:DR summary at the end if you want to skip to it**
Episode I: A New Hope….the Fab Five
Many fans are familiar with the saga of the Fab Five and the ensuing fallout thanks to the wonderful 30-for-30 documentary. In a nutshell, it was discovered that Ed Martin had been laundering money from his racketeering ring through a variety of college and high school basketball players – many of whom attended Michigan. He wasn’t influencing which schools the kids went to really, but he was definitely providing them benefits without being a parent or guardian – an NCAA violation. When the dust settled Michigan was penalized by the NCAA as follows:
- Fired coach Steve Fisher
- Banned from post-season for 2-years
- NCAA Probation for 4-years
- Loss of a scholarship for 4-years
- Vacated all or part of 5-seasons of victories
- Removal of 4 banners from the rafters
Michigan deserved to be punished for what happened, as do the schools revealed this past week. But keep the severity of that punishment in mind when you compare it to what other schools are going to get (or in the case of Louisville, already got). Did I mention that it took the NCAA a whopping SIX YEARS to complete the investigation?
Episode II: The Empire (NCAA) Strikes Back
The sequel to the Fab Five story is probably more relevant to the situation we’re seeing unfold right now. It is the story of Jamal Crawford and his ill-fated attempt to return Michigan to basketball relevance. This story is lesser-known in the annuals of Michigan history and the younger readers of this site might not remember it.
The story unfolded in the 1999-2000 season. Believe it or not, Michigan had not yet received the full punishment from the NCAA for the Fab Five investigation – that was still on-going long after they had left. But the stain left on the program was clear and Michigan’s reputation had already been tarnished. The last of the players caught up in the scandal (Louis Bullock) had left and Brian Ellerbe (an atrocious coaching hire) was trying to pick up the pieces. He signed a recruit named Jamal Crawford for the '99-'00 season, who you could easily argue has had as good of an NBA career as any former Michigan player.
Michigan started that season 12-3 with eyes on making noise again in the post season. Then questions started swirling about Crawford’s standing with the NCAA. The NCAA took exception to the fact that Crawford lived with a family friend for his last three years of high school in Seattle. His side of the story was that he had to get away from a bad situation where he was raised and this family friend offered to take him in and care for him. However, since the friend was neither family or a legal guardian, the NCAA ruled that everything he provided for Crawford (food, clothing, car, etc.) was impermissible under their rules. Crawford was suspended 6 games and ordered to pay $11,500 to charity in order to regain eligibility.
On top of that punishment, the NCAA then rubbed salt in the wound. The day Crawford was to return from suspension was against MSU with Michigan’s season starting to unravel without their star player. About 30 minutes before the game it was ruled that Crawford was still being investigated and could not play. This time the NCAA was reviewing the fact that Crawford had submitted his name to the NBA Draft as a high school senior – something that was not allowed at the time without loss of eligibility. The NCAA suspended him for another 8 games, which included the end of the season. Michigan finished the year with a record of 15-14 after that 12-3 start.
More astounding than anything was the fact that the NBA never even acknowledged that Crawford submitted his name because he did so after their deadline and had already sent a retraction letter even though they never accepted his initial request. All of this happened even before he committed to Michigan. So let’s recap the NCAA punishment again… For receiving living care and expenses on the order of $15,000 and submitting his name for NBA draft evaluation, Crawford was punished as follows:
- Suspended 14-games combined
- Ordered to pay $11,500 to charity
In fact, at the time the NCAA was on a run of suspensions and here is a good piece summarizing the punishments to other players. A few examples from this era:
- Kareem Rush (Missouri) – 9 games for getting money from his AAU coach
- JaRon Rush (UCLA) – 9 games for $6525 from an AAU coach
- Andre Williams (OK St) – 5 games for having his $20k prep school tuition paid for from a foundation that supported inner city youths
- Chris Porter (Aub) – Suspended indefinitely for taking $2500 from an agent to prevent his mom from being evicted
When you read these suspensions you feel like the NCAA already has a nice blueprint for how to punish the recent names that came out in the Yahoo report. I acknowledge that the ledger evidence does not directly imply those players accepted the money, but historically the NCAA has been inclined to “sit first, suspend later” while they investigate. A former compliance officer was on ESPN radio this morning and was equally surprised these schools weren’t sitting players preemptively.
Episode III: The Return of the Jedi (NCAA)
The third installment is the least relevant but does serve to highlight some hypocrisy from the NCAA. In 2014 Michigan was again near the top of the NCAA mountain after making the title game the year before and having the cleanest coach in the sport. Michigan fell short of the final that year in part because their star center Mitch McGary had a back injury that forced him to cut short his season. While in street clothes and unable to play during the NCAA tournament McGary tested positive for marijuana. Here’s where the insanity of the NCAA takes over.
Had McGary tested positive during the regular season, his punishment would have been left up to the school and the Big Ten. Similar offenses yielded small suspensions in recent years on the order of a game or two. Yet because he tested positive during the tournament – when he wasn’t even dressed for the games – he was given a FULL YEAR suspension. That’s right, the NCAA rule would have punished him more than just about any other transgression you’ll find in an hour of google searching.
To sum it up, Michigan ran afoul of the NCAA rules (however archaic they may be) on three occasions since I stepped food on campus. The results of those three clashes with the NCAA were countless vacated wins, loss of banners, embarrassment, firing of coaches, lost seasons, years of scuffling as a program, etc. Worst of all, the NCAA forced two of Michigan’s most iconic players (Jamal Crawford and Mitch McGary) to leave school earlier than they may have otherwise because of how extreme the punishments were they received.
So tell me NCAA, when will the players and schools from this recent Yahoo story get the same treatment?