Louisville, path dependence, and punditry


Billy Minardi Hall.

Last Friday Louisville announced that its investigation of its strippers-and-escorts scandal had led it to self-impose a postseason ban on the men’s basketball team for this season. This means Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, who transferred into the program this season as seniors and thus had no connection to the events described in Katina Powell’s book, will not play in an NCAA tournament where otherwise the Cardinals were most assuredly going to land a really nice seed.

I’m obviously late to this particular topical party (Mondays and Tuesdays are hectic around here), and, anyway, my first order of business is a simple amen. It really is awful that the postseason dreams of Lee and Lewis have been sacrificed on the altar of post-facto justice, and I dare say they’ve carried themselves far better than I would have at age 23. Please file what follows not under “Yes, but,” much less “On the contrary!” This is more of a “Yes, and,” exercise.

Once strippers and escorts were paid to be at Billy Minardi Hall, everything else — even any correct decision taken subsequently — was going to be a footnote
Louisville’s decision to forego the 2016 NCAA tournament has its fair share of critics in February, but back in October there was no lack of published speculation that the Cardinals would in fact do precisely what they’ve just done. What has changed over the last four months is nothing more complex or material than the fact that Rick Pitino has turned out to have a much better team than we thought he would have. This fact makes the postseason ban all the more painful for Lee and Lewis, surely, but, speaking now as a punditry, is this really how we wish to codify our theory of moral sentiments? That postseason bans are fine (hello, Missouri) as long as you’re not going to make the tournament anyway?

Last season when Syracuse self-imposed its own postseason ban, for example, it meant no NCAA tournament hopes for Rakeem Christmas. At the time it was said the Orange were cynical for getting their punishment out of the way when they were suffering through a down year. Implicit in that critique was the proposition that Syracuse would somehow be more commendable if they waited until they had a better team and then skipped the tournament.

Well, now Louisville has done precisely that. I’m not saying we should celebrate Louisville’s decision. I’m saying everything that happens henceforth with the Cardinals must necessarily fall under the heading of cleaning up an unusually large mess. It is exceedingly unlikely that any decision under that heading can or should trigger applause, as demonstrated by the uniform reaction elicited by varying past decisions from programs placed in similar straits.

Players transferring to new programs are adults
Not many people — a few, but not many — expressed too much despair on Bruiser Flint’s behalf when Lee, a likely 2016 Colonial POY, chose to leave Drexel and transfer to Louisville. By my lights, this is as it should be. Flint’s a grown-up, and Lee’s relocation is what happens when adults get to make decisions that further their self-interest. Maybe the apposite vein of solace for Flint isn’t to make it so future seniors can’t transfer, much less to question Lee’s “loyalty.” Maybe it is instead to offer Flint our most earnest and heartfelt “Ouch, tough break, fellow adult.”

Surely it is past time that we export this same recognition of moral agency to the players themselves. The premise behind so much criticism of Louisville’s decision seems to be that Lee and Lewis have been traduced by bad people in authority, and if only we, the writers and public, had been at the controls instead everything would be ever so much better. To each their own, but include me out. This is far too close to the NCAA’s brand of in loco parentis for my tastes.

Conversely if you think that players are responsible men and women who can make their own decisions, negotiate their own contracts, employ their own agents, enter into their own endorsement deals, and weather any adverse consequences that may ensue — and I do — then “Ouch, tough break, fellow adult” may be a more appropriate and perhaps even more utilitarian tonal choice than full-out think of the children outrage. Maybe future graduate transfers will feel a bit more of a caveat-emptor impulse. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

The relationship between justice and players’ postseason dreams can never be entirely peaceable
The zeal to build a better disciplinary mousetrap for cases such as this one (as opposed to your straight academic infractions) springs from a wish to spare the innocent from paying for the sins of the past. Yet I can’t help feeling that this project is making promises it can’t keep. If we agree that there will on occasion be a need for penalties, then those sanctions will have to be visited upon someone at some point.

Recasting penalties as purely financial levies, for example, enshrines what is otherwise a questionable postulate, namely, that making a considered decision to cheat based on an ability to pay at a later date is somehow a good thing. Similarly, post-dating penalties to spare current players does, inevitably, penalize future players. Those future players would at least have knowledge of the penalties, and possibly this is the best accommodation to be made. It is still a postseason ban, however, and the fact that we don’t yet know the banned players’ names doesn’t mean they too won’t have their own compelling stories to share. Misbehaving programs have teams, teams are made up of players, players want to go to the NCAA tournament, and eligibility for the NCAA tournament will always be the largest elephant gun to point at misbehaving programs.

Louisville would have won few plaudits for taking a diametrically opposed course of action
Whether you define the exact opposite of what just happened as doing nothing or, more precisely, imposing a postseason ban but not putting it into effect until 2016-17 (and seeking an exemption from the NCAA for players transferring out to play immediately), there would have been no ticker tape parades. In fact the criticism of doing the opposite would have mounted in correlation to the Cardinals’ degree of postseason success. Thus if Pitino’s team really did make the Final Four, the six-day lull leading up to the national semifinal would have been marked by headlines besides just “U.S. Population Unites in Praise of Louisville’s February Decision to Play On.”

Perhaps that week would also include a searching feature at Jezebel asserting that the Cards’ presence at the Final Four — and the acquiescence in and approbation of that success from the media, the NCAA, advertisers, etc. — epitomizes everything that’s wrong and patriarchal about monetized mass-market sports. Surely some writer somewhere would praise Louisville for “overcoming adversity,” and then said writer would be roundly abused instantly on Twitter and soon at length at Deadspin for equating stripper-fueled parties with Hurricane Sandy or the Dust Bowl.

From the moment athletic director Tom Jurich had the results of the investigation in his hands, the only certainty attached to Louisville’s next action was that there would be criticism of Louisville’s next action. The only variables attached to this criticism were when and of what specific type. Path dependence is a callous and unfeeling hegemon.