History can be revised, to some degree, by intelligent and thorough historians. But history cannot be erased, no matter how much the NCAA believes it can. Last week, the national governing body for American college sports decided Louisville must vacate its national basketball championship — won right before our eyes in 2013 — as part of its punishment for a slew of violations under former coach Rick Pitino. The history books, according to the NCAA, will now read “vacated” between Kentucky’s title in 2012 and Connecticut’s in 2014.
This is absurd, of course. No more or less absurd than USC’s vacated football championship in 2004, but just as absurd. Games played on a field (or court) can be erased only when that device made famous in the Men In Black
movies is actually invented for the elimination of memories on a mass human scale. If you find it hard to forget Louisville’s Kevin Ware shattering his lower leg during that 2013 NCAA tournament, imagine the NCAA now trying to tell us it didn’t happen, that the Cardinals’ tournament run that season is now . . . vacated.
This kind of penalty is salt to the wound for followers of the Memphis basketball program, whose 2008 Final Four banner is currently in an undisclosed closet. The Tigers were forced to take that banner down when the Derrick Rose test-taking scandal came to light (in 2009), though the 1985 Final Four banner — for a run also vacated by the NCAA — hangs proudly from the rafters at FedExForum.
Cheaters must be punished and yes, there is cheating in college sports. But the sad and unfair truth is that athletes must often pay for misdeeds that occurred before they arrived on campus. Erasing history just can’t be done. Would the NCAA return any proceeds from games Louisville played five years ago? Would it reimburse Memphis fans who paid hard-earned money to watch the scandalous Rose in the winter of 2007-08? The answers are no and hell no.
Punish programs clearly in violation of NCAA rules and regs. But leave history — and its banners — alone. We saw what happened.
• I find the strategy of tanking in professional sports repugnant. By now you know the concept: compile losses now with the hope of acquiring high draft picks — and actually competing — later. Baseball’s two most recent champions perfected this craft. The Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros fielded historically poor teams for multiple seasons before building rosters around draft jewels like Kris Bryant (Cubs) and Carlos Correa (Astros) and winning the World Series.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver was right to fine Mavericks owner Mark Cuban last week for publicly acknowledging that losing is in his team’s best interests this season. If a franchise is going to openly concede games — in an industry built on a foundation of competition — it had better slash the cost of tickets and sponsorships. And no child should have to pay for a ticket to see his or her home team suit up a roster shy of its best.
As long as the NBA has a lottery system for its draft — no matter how it’s weighted — there will be incentives to accumulate losses. So here’s a novel idea: order the draft by the number of tickets sold by teams that miss the playoffs. Reward struggling franchises that retain the support of their fan base. The more home tickets sold in a down year, the higher that team will pick in the next draft. Fans are smart, and their money is as honest as Mark Cuban. Losing on purpose can’t be sold.
• The only silver lining to Tiger point guard Jeremiah Martin’s season-ending injury is that it may secure a league scoring title for the Memphis junior. How special would a conference scoring title be for Martin? Larry Finch never led his league (the Missouri Valley Conference) in scoring. Neither did Lorenzen Wright, Rodney Carney, Chris Douglas-Roberts, or Joe Jackson. Over the last 50 years, only four Tigers have led their league in scoring: Keith Lee (Metro, 1984-85), Elliot Perry (Metro, 1990-91), Penny Hardaway (Great Midwest, 1992-93), and Will Barton (Conference USA, 2011-12). Martin finished his season with an average of 18.9 points per game. Second among American Athletic Conference players is SMU’s Shake Milton (also injured) at 18.0.