The Scandal Is What The Media's NCAA Scandal Cops Think Is A ScandalS

We've been around the block with Yahoo's scandal hunters a time or two, but this latest scoop is really reductioing their worst absurdum into the ground:

Over the course of a three-month investigation, four sources with intimate knowledge of the Syracuse men's basketball program told Yahoo! Sports at least 10 players since 2001 have tested positive for a banned recreational substance or substances.

A three-month investigation? This is journalism as conducted by the crew of the S.S. Minnow.

Beyond statute-of-limitations issues, Syracuse could also be charged with lack of institutional control for failing to adhere to its own drug policy, similar to sanctions recently levied against Baylor University. A wide-ranging NCAA inquiry into the Bears' basketball program in 2005 revealed the athletic department failed to follow its established guidelines by concealing positive marijuana tests for three players. A report released by the NCAA's Committee on Infractions after the Baylor investigation stated: "The failure of the university to follow its own [drug testing] procedures demonstrated a lack of institutional control."

Just to be clear on the institutional-control question: Syracuse stands accused of not keeping tabs on a drug-testing program it wasn't required to have in the first place. Specifically, we're talking about less than one player per year with a bad pee test. Now, for my money, a school that ignores the results of a totally superfluous and self-destructive drug-testing regime is showing an admirable level of institutional control. In fact, if we're talking about institutional control as an actual thing and not the NCAA's catch-all term of art, doesn't Yahoo's own reporting show something very different from a lack of control? Despite a decade's worth of unpunished positive tests at Syracuse, nobody's dealing drugs or overdosing, so far as we know. There is no slippery slope here. Control!

But Yahoo gazes upon Syracuse and its bad pee tests and is somehow reminded of Baylor. Baylor? That school went down because one basketball player murdered another basketball player, whereupon coach Dave Bliss enlisted his team in an effort to smear the dead kid so no one would notice that Bliss had been making paper airplanes out of the NCAA bylaws. The drug-testing was a subordinate clause nestled in among some genuinely ugly business. It was the dime bag found on the counter of a blood-spattered crime scene. In a sane world, that context would matter. This is not that world.

If it wasn't clear already, college-sports scandal-hunting is now deep in its Officer Krupke period. A rule is a rule is a rule, the thinking goes. Last week, Sports Illustrated published an exposé of the UCLA basketball team under coach Ben Howland that was fascinating if only for the insight it offered into the brainless authoritarianism of the scandal hunters. At one point, SI gets a player to acknowledge that he and some teammates attended a New Year's Eve rave and dropped Ecstasy, which is the sort of thing college students will do. Not long after the rave, someone—it's not clear who—ordered those players to take a drug test, which is the sort of thing East Germany would've done.

I'll quote the passage in full:

A few days later an assistant coach phoned the players who attended the rave and asked if they had gone out on New Year's Eve. They denied it, but soon afterward each was ordered to submit to a drug test. "I took something that was supposed to get [the drugs] out of my system," says one player. "I never heard anything about the results [of the test], so it must have worked."

Now, I realize the Fourth Amendment has seen better days, and that years and years of drugs-in-sports hysteria have helped reduced the Bill of Rights to the thing we step on when we're reaching for the piss cups. But even in this climate, the above passage in the SI story brought me up short. That's a public employee apparently forcing targeted drug tests on a group of students engaged in an extracurricular activity at a public university—a public employee exerting dominion over the private lives of young adults in ways that very few of us would tolerate in any other setting. I'm sorry: Legal or not, that's a scandal. Just ask the ACLU, which used to fart lawsuits about this stuff until the Supreme Court harshed everyone's mellow. But SI doesn't even flinch. SI just rolls stupidly along. The anecdote is adduced bizarrely to the overarching point that Ben Howland has lost control of his team—players are eating drugs!—when it and the rest of the story pretty ably illustrate the fact that Howland shouldn't be in control of anything except maybe a crosstown local.

(The story also exhumes the corpse of John Wooden and engages in the usual necrophilia to suggest that Howland has somehow strayed from the Wooden Way. Please. Is it really so hard to imagine Wooden yanking a player for wearing the wrong socks, as Howland supposedly once tried to do with Russell Westbrook? All Howland did was take the Wooden Way a few steps further into bullying autocracy; the difference is that he did it without the other guy's coaching ability, his roster, and his knack for saying charming things that people could crochet all over their wall hangings.)

Monday's Yahoo story is an idiot backwoods cousin to the SI report. To repeat: Over an 11-year period, a handful of players may or may not have taken recreational drugs in violation of a drug policy Syracuse wasn't even required by the NCAA to have. That's it. That's your three-month investigation. Like so many big Yahoo reports, the story is obsessed with the misdemeanor violation of picayune rules to the point that it adopts the fussy morality of the rulemakers. A rule is a rule is a rule, the story says. I'm telling you, no one covers the rules quite like the Yahoo college-sports crew. Those guys watch over the rules the way a Zales rent-a-cop watches over the brooch aisle, and never once do they stop to wonder if any of the rules being violated make any sense in the first place.

One of the authors of the Yahoo story, Charles Robinson, whom we've met before around these parts, has spoken loftily of his work on the NCAA scandal beat. He once told reporter Daniel Libit:

I take a very philosophical approach to the journalism we do and my philosophical approach is that no matter what comes of it, exposing truth is always going to be an influence of positive change. That change can come in a lot of different ways and can come over a very long arduous timespan, and I think truth is an agent of change.

OK, great. But let's philosophize a little about what kind of change might emerge from this latest bit of exposed truth. A more active centralized drug-testing program? Closer monitoring of the individual school's drug-testing programs? More rules? More enforcement? More NCAA? Is it positive change when the banana republic gets better about enforcing its own twisted laws?

Exposés like Yahoo's and SI's go a ways toward explaining how the NCAA, with its rickety legal and moral framework, has lived on for so long when by any measure it should have been picked clean by tort lawyers ages ago. The NCAA sprouts rule after rule to disguise the fact that the entire organization is just a baroque workers'-comp-avoidance mechanism. And yet the association is covered by a lot of people who, by temperament and by professional custom, believe it's their job to report on the violation of those rules but never on their essential logic or legitimacy. The NCAA and its member schools get pettier and pettier with their athletes, and the media get pettier and pettier in sympathetic response. I worry for my colleagues sometimes. It seems as if they're on a slippery slope. There is, you might say, a lack of institutional control.

Image by Jim Cooke