If not Louisville, then who gets the death penalty?


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SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken goes inside the scandal that has rocked the sports world and the ripple effect it will have on college basketball and Rick Pitino’s legacy.
USA TODAY Sports

The words “Louisville” and “death penalty” have become inseparable over the past week.

If any school in the country deserves to have one of its sports teams shut down for at least a year, it’s the University of Louisville. Consider it a kind of lifetime achievement award for the egregious and ongoing transgressions of its men’s basketball program under the legendary and notorious Rick Pitino.

That’s what should happen after the bombshell news last week that Louisville has been ensnared in the FBI’s criminal investigation into illegal payments to recruits. The NCAA should close down Louisville’s vaunted basketball program for a year or two and hobble it for a few more. 

More: Could recruiting scandal doom University of Louisville basketball?

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Louisville deserves nothing less than to have to start from scratch. Pitino’s behavior there has been breathtaking for years, since he had an affair with the future wife of the team’s equipment manager and paid for her to have an abortion. He then later oversaw a program that was providing strippers and prostitutes to players and recruits in a campus dorm that resulted in the program being put on NCAA probation.

Neither of these were fireable offenses in the lenient mind of athletic director Tom Jurich, but now that the FBI and Department of Justice are involved, both men thankfully are gone from college sports, hopefully forever.

As the federal investigation continues, at some point, the NCAA will reach its moment of truth. Does it have the nerve to do what it should do? And if it does, will whoever is left in charge at Louisville fight the penalties, as the so-called academic leaders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have done so successfully so far over the damning allegations against their men’s basketball program?

We might think these are questions just for the NCAA and Louisville, but they’re also questions for us. This new college basketball scandal might well end up being the worst in college sports, or perhaps second-worst behind the horror of what Jerry Sandusky did at Penn State, which surfaced nearly six years ago.

So, what is it, American sports fans: Are college sports about more than sports? Or do they exist simply to entertain the masses? If it’s the latter, does any of this either surprise or bother you? If men’s hoops are here purely for entertainment, for March Madness and our office pools, do we really care if Adidas and perhaps other shoe companies are paying prospective college athletes and their families?

Flying home from the BCS college football national championship game in 2011, I sat next to a woman decked out in Auburn gear from head to toe, still celebrating her school’s national title. She was smart and forthcoming, so I thought I’d ask her if the months-long controversy over Cam Newton’s recruitment and subsequent questions about his eligibility bothered her?

“No, not really,” she said.

“So if you have to vacate the title someday …”

“That’s okay,” she said plainly. “We know we won it on the field.”

I imagine many of you would say the same thing about your alma mater. I certainly wouldn’t say that about mine, but I’m guessing I’m in the minority on this, perhaps a very small minority.

Look at how the Penn State faithful, good solid citizens that most are, kicked and screamed over talk of shutting down their program after the Sandusky scandal, which took root and blossomed right in the middle of Joe Paterno’s football program. Penn State fans knew what happened was terrible but they couldn’t fathom giving up their football, and the NCAA caved in and allowed them to keep it.

As a sports nation, we have no shame. We’ve become un-embarrassable.

So perhaps the only way to really punish a school like Louisville is to also punish its fans and donors by taking away what they love for a year or two. We wring our hands and say we can’t do this, that we’re hurting too many innocent people in the process.

That’s nonsense. Sure we can do this. It’s all about answering a simple question:

Do we stand for something, or do we not?

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