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Keith Strudler: Syracuse NCAA Violations

I should come clean up front and admit I’ve never been a big fan of Syracuse athletics. This animus is largely the irrational logic of sports fandom. Basically, I went to college in central New York at a school that wasn’t Syracuse. Which means you bear the ungodly weight of their fanatics despite your complete disinterest. Oh, and once our band played in a bar up there, and it didn’t go all that well. So for that, I can’t stand Syracuse athletics.

Disclosure out of the way, this has not been a good run for the Orange – particularly their beloved basketball program, which is as close to a professional franchise as you’ll get in that neck of the woods. The team plays in an oversized football facility and draws the largest crowd in the country at over 25,000 per game. But just last week, the NCAA released its long awaited report and penalty on the assumed wrongdoings of the athletic department. Among other things, over the course of the past decade they paid athletes under the table, gave academic credit for imaginary internships, avoided drug testing procedures, and gave outsiders unique access and benefits to help them accomplish the above and more. And more problematic for Syracuse, their beloved head basketball coach Jim Boeheim, at least according to this report, knew what was going on, or at least ignored what he could. He failed to cultivate, as the report suggests, a culture of compliance. That culture has created a cottage industry of athletic staffers dedicated to nothing more than ensuring people follow rules that have little to do with sports. Needless to say, Boeheim disputes many of the findings, or at least their implications. But few outside of the general New York Snow Belt are likely to believe his explanation.

For these accused wrongdoings, Syracuse athletics will be punished harshly, particularly Boeheim and his basketball program. They’ll give up 12 scholarships over the next four years, vacate some 100 wins, send back a chunk of money to the NCAA, and Boeheim himself will miss the first nine games of next season. There’s more, but that’s the big stuff – beyond the public embarrassment, of course. The football team will also forfeit a bunch of games from years ago and stand on probation for the next five seasons. All in all, a big blow to a program just entering the rough and tumble ACC, where they could become cellar dwellers pretty quickly. What is slightly ironic is that the investigation stared from a self-reported violation from the Orange back in 2007, when they clearly assumed the NCAA wouldn’t start turning stones on what seemed like a minor transgression. So if there’s a lesson for all the kids, it’s keep your mouth shut.

Syracuse isn’t the first, last, or even most notable case of academic fraud and clear rule bending. They’re not even the best of the past year, with UNC’s laundry list setting a high water mark for institutional failure. And that’s not even considering those cases that went outside the lines, like at Penn State or Baylor several years ago, when real crimes – not fakes ones overseen by a committee of lawyers in Indianapolis – were committed.

For the most part, you’ll see a standard response from different constituencies, each playing a role in this predictable and clichéd drama. Syracuse fans will defend Boeheim and his program and find scapegoats on the outside. Outsiders will admonish the Orange, shocked that coaches and athletes could cheat, unwilling to recognize the grey matter that is modern college athletics. And cultural critics will decry the entire system, convinced that the only means of ending this and similar cases is to dismantle a broken system.  It’s a discussion that’s doomed to impasse and failure, much like college athletics itself.

So what can we take from the case of Syracuse athletics? Perhaps nothing more than a predictive model. At Syracuse, and UNC, and Penn State and others, you had dominant social institutions overseen by disproportionately powerful men in somewhat isolated settings that cocooned their activities. Of course, that’s not the only model – I recall USC having some trouble in the isolated town of Los Angeles – but it’s definitely a pattern. Perhaps individual universities should recognize those conditions, where a coach can become more powerful than a university president and a governor combined, instead of adding another career administrator to their compliance staff. Instead of trying to prevent breaking the rules, how about preventing the social conditions that cause it in the first place?

Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially for a place like Syracuse that deeply and perhaps innately loves its college sports. Even if some of us who lived nearby, didn’t.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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