Cardinal Sin: The Ballad of Rick Pitino

The first ax dropped this week for Louisville basketball. The school has self-imposed a post-season ban for 2016. As I am to understand this ban, this includes certainly the NCAA tournament, NIT, or other postseason invitational tournament, as well as the ACC conference tournament. While this decision is not light or arbitrary from the school, it feels pretty toothless given the fact that Louisville is not the juggernaut they have been in the past. The real question is: how the hell did we get here? Specifically, what caused the Cardinals’ swing from the anti-bandwagon darlings to the epitome of everything that wrong and seedy about college athletics? Who’s to blame? The answers to those questions are not yet completely apparent. However, this albatross will be set about the neck of Rick Pitino before this is all over.

First, let’s discuss the brief impact of Louisville’s imposition of a ban this postseason. They have played five teams who were ranked at the time of the contest, and they have lost all of them except North Carolina, their highest ranked opponent and most recent game. The win over Carolina did a tremendous amount for Louisville’s bracket hopes. With that win, it became unlikely they would get left out even with a pedestrian performance down the stretch. So, the ban affects a team that is good, not great and who has lost all the tough games but one (the ACC isn’t what it used to be this year). Additionally, the suspension of basketball for one postseason reinforces the notion that 12 months will be long enough for people to forget about the scandal. Those people probably aren’t wrong. Sports fans, even those most outspoken about scandal, typically move on to another issue after a year. Still, this ban feels disingenuous, ambivalent, and soft.

I am, of course, aware that tying discipline with athletic performance is dangerous. So, I cannot begrudge the school for summarily banning the team from 2016 postseason play, which is serious and fairly immediate action on a scandal involving the team over the past few years. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Louisville’s administrative ban all but proves that the allegations against the team for employing sex workers for their recruits have foundation. Moreover, this self-imposition of a suspension may be Louisville attempting what’s known as a loss leader strategy.

I apologize for pulling an economic pricing term out on a sports blog, but the positioning fits perfectly. So you don’t have to navigate away, a loss leader is a promotion or discount imposed by a company to get people in the door to spend money on other things. The company potentially takes a massive loss on the promoted item (the loss leader) while making the loss up in profits on the non-discounted items.

Applied to the Louisville situation, the annunciation of the postseason ban is the loss leader which Louisville is willing to bear. The strategy here is for Louisville to bear the brunt of the punishment now, with the long term hope that their ‘initiative’ will pay off. The payoff in this case would be the NCAA Committee on Infractions handing down a “time served” or probation notice which effectively sanctions the actions taken by Louisville as sufficient to address the problem. Additionally, when Syracuse self-imposed a postseason ban last year for nearly a decade of misconduct under Boeheim, it was held out as sufficient punishment for the school as a whole. Boeheim was suspended 9 games, for effectively losing oversight and institutional control of his program. Louisville is hoping this is the narrative they can tell in one year’s time.

There are problems with that line of thinking. Syracuse imposed its ban after appearing before the committee in an effort to soften the blow of the hammer. Louisville has yet met with the NCAA over the sex worker scandal, and may be attempting to control the optics with the committee by frontrunning them moreso than Syracuse did. Secondly, nothing Syracuse did was illegal. Let’s be clear, recruiting shenanigans, impermissable benefits, and the other nefarious acts of which the Orange were accused are not crimes. They are not violations of laws, only bylaws, effectively making them ethics violations.

On the other hand, prostitution and monetizing sex are always illegal. Coordinating this arrangement makes the involved Louisville coaching staff accessories to several counts of these crimes. Ultimately, the NCAA COI does not have subpoena power, nor are they a court of law. Thus, they need only be concerned with Louisville’s violations of the NCAA bylaws, just like with Syracuse. However, as the regulator for the NCAA competitors, the committee is charged with the equitable distribution of penalties to its membership. As a result, a school whose employees are found to have violated a law will be held to stricter discipline than those guilty of violating bylaws. That’s just the way it is. And, that’s not uncommon. I have a regulator in my profession. This regulator enforces the rules in a very similar way. If I violate a regulation, I receive penalties that range from a slap on the wrist to expulsion. However, this industry has many statutory laws that govern behavior as well. Odds are if you violate some of the more major bylaws, you also have directly violated a law. This is similar to the situation before the NCAA with Louisville. The school has certainly violated the rule governing impermissable benefits and possibly committed major recruiting violations if they are found to have arranged sex for recruits. The argument that all recruiting violations are the same is untenable here. Louisville staffers allegedly violated the law to provide an impermissable benefit to recruits. That will be judged far more harshly than the schools that give recruits “$100 handshakes.”

So, that’s most of what we know regarding the question of how we got here. However, what remains is the question of blame. By its own motion, the NCAA has initiated an investigation into the accusations against Louisville. The committee will rule on the findings as well as any proceedings/outcomes from a parallel legal investigation. The evidence is fairly damning for Louisville; and I’m fairly confident that Pitino can expect a suspension. And, with his recent remarks backing the Louisville president’s postseason ban, he may very well expect one to be coming down the pike.

In the foregoing, I mentioned Syracuse, who is only the most recent basketball school subject to the machinations of the NCAA Committee on Infractions. Specifically, however, I mentioned Boeheim, the head coach of Syracuse. Boeheim was suspended despite the attempted frontrunning of the discipline by the school. Boeheim paid an embarrassingly low price for what his school was accused of doing. The media let the NCAA have it for its inability to mete out fair discipline. And that was only a year ago. Now, the committee has a high profile scandal case before it, one in which laws have been broken. This may be seen by many on the committee as a second opportunity to come down hard on a violator. As a matter of procedure, the committee has to formally accept Louisville’s self-imposed discipline and roll it into their disciplinary findings. This is pro forma; they will accept the ban. In addition, they have enough reach to deal additional discipline to the associated staff and coaches embroiled in the scandal, including current Louisville head coach, Rick Pitino, who is likely facing a devastating suspension. By my estimation, Louisville may lose Pitino for at least one season, maybe two.

To cover why, we need additional context surrounding the man that is Rick Pitino.

Pitino, like many coaches in college, played college basketball. He was a guard for UMASS in the early 1970s. After his playing days were over, he became an assistant coach at a couple places before becoming a head coach. He then “graduated” into the NBA for a stint with a couple of teams before returning to be the head coach at Providence-where, as luck would have it, he coached Billy Donovan, former Florida Gators and current Oklahoma City head coach, as a player. Pitino had several other stops helming great teams from both the NCAA and NBA before settling into his role as the head coach at Louisville in 2001. Pitino’s aggregate win percentage as head coach from all of these stops is a whopping .741. By any measure that matters, Rick Pitino is a phenomenal basketball coach, and a winner.

This is not the first time a sex scandal has reared its ugly head for Rick Pitino. In 2003, he was involved in a extramarital affair with a staffer’s wife. In 2010, this woman was convicted for extorting Pitino and lying to federal agents. The details of the affair are immaterial to the point; however, what does matter is that Pitino gave sworn testimony confirming the affair in open court. Now this is not meant to besmirch Rick Pitino or to color your perception of him in regards to the current investigation. The point of interest here is that Pitino was retained by Louisville, despite having a behavior clause in his contract. The university, at that time, failed to exercise its discretion to terminate Pitino even though they would have been justified in doing so. The clause permitted firing Pitino for acts that disparage the name of the university or acts that are morally reprehensible. Any way you slice it, a highly publicized affair regarding the head basketball coach at Louisville checks both of those boxes.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, Rick Pitino has a history of being an incredibly charismatic, affable, and conscientious head coach and person. Additionally, morality clauses in contracts are flimsy and I imagine the university weighed the risk of being sued and losing versus retaining a morally dubious head coach who wins lots of games. That last part is the kicker. Winning makes everything okay.

So, as the story has been developing regarding Pitino and Louisville’s involvement in the scandal, we have heard from many people that Pitino was not involved in the arranging of sex parties for recruits. You can believe this if you want to, or you can think it’s a crock of shit. The truth is that it doesn’t really matter whether he knew or was involved in this. The bottom line is that he reasonably should have known. This is known as the reasonable man standard. Take Pitino out of it, and place in an unnamed, fictitious person who is competent, rational, and reasonable. If this constructed person reasonably could or should meet the standard-in our case, knowing about the parties-then the person in that situation bears responsibility. Basically, if a reasonable person knew or should have known that other coaches were organizing sex parties for recruits, then Pitino is responsible by not maintaining control of his team.

Louisville pays Rick Pitino $4,078,327 per year. By the estimation of someone who doesn’t make $4 million a year, this is more than enough money to both coach your players and manage your staff. Head coaches have their wages set by the market, but the expectation is that the school hires you, you run the program and win games. Coaches are the CEOs of their basketball program. They get paid like people who get all the credit when their team has success, they deserve the blame when something bad happens under their watch.

In Louisville’s case, something bad has happened. Dick Vitale, college basketball’s Vince McMahon, has recently come to the public defense of Pitino saying that he has taken and passed a polygraph concerning his involvement. That information from Dick is very interesting, and may help Pitino’s case. But, there’s a difference between blame and responsibility. The reality is that no one cares if Pitino can pass a polygraph. Enough evidence may come to light that shows Pitino is blameless in this case, but the responsibility for this is inescapable. The court of public opinion holds you out as guilty until proven innocent. However, nothing Pitino can say or do will ever prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he didn’t know about any of it, and it is unlikely that anything will come out to prove his absolute guilt either.

The bottom line is that the NCAA has a lot to consider when weighing its penalties upon Louisville. It’s hard to punish the school without punishing the kids, who may not have been involved in the scandal at all. Ultimately, the COI may accept the postseason ban for Louisville for 2016, but then levy harsher penalties against the coaches. The NCAA has shown a willingness to hold the head coach responsible for the behavior of his program and staff. It is not a leap of logic to consider that Pitino will receive similar treatment as the head coach for Louisville. But, with the gravity of the allegations, it’s unlikely that Pitino skirts with only 9 games. The NCAA can’t afford the bad press of looking even weaker on discipline than they already have. It’s an unwinnable situation since they’ll be called draconian if they bench Pitino for a season. However, I have no doubt the Committee on Infractions will arrive at the conclusion that being overly punitive is the side of caution. Given the potential criminal outcome, they cannot afford to appear dismissive of a school sanctioned “sex for basketball” program.

Pitino is going to get hammered. A season-long suspension would hardly be a surprise. And, with a suspension of Pitino, it’s possible that Louisville would be compelled to fire him.

The worst is yet to come for Pitino’s Cardinals.

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