Only in college sports can a school throw the book at itself.
And only in college sports do the culprits go free, while someone else pays.
The biggest questions you should ask after Michigan’s self-flagellation Thursday are these: How much does Chris Webber suffer? How much do Louis Bullock, Robert Traylor or Maurice Taylor suffer?
The answer, to all of the above: so far, not one bit.
And that’s insane.
If you do the crime, you should do some time. If not, what is the point of a law? To inflict pain, regardless? How is that fair? How is it that Tommy Amaker, the current coach of the Wolverines, whose record is unblemished, who was working at Duke when all this went on, now has to be punished by forfeiting his chance at postseason tournaments?
How is it that the current squad of Wolverines — who presumably don’t even KNOW Ed Martin — is paying for his sins?
How is it that the current athletic director or the current school president
— neither of whom was here when Martin was handing money to U-M players — now must see their program embarrassed, banners taken down, money returned, victories erased, while Webber drives his expensive cars in California, while Martin does time for real crimes, while Traylor and Taylor collect NBA paychecks?
“This,” said U-M’s current president, Mary Sue Coleman, “is a day of great shame.”
For some, apparently, more than others.
Still no apologies
Now. It’s true, if Steve Fisher knew about Martin’s funny money, and Fisher, as coach, was an employee of the school, and Martin, by definition, was considered a “booster,” then through the way the NCAA handles violations, the school has to pay — even if some of it happened 10 years ago. Personally, I think Fisher was conveniently benign — a sort of see-no-evil, hear-no-evil guy. But remember, he did suffer for this mess: He was fired, and is working at a far lower-profile job than he had in Ann Arbor.
You can’t say the same for the players. How exactly were they hurt? What price have they paid for knowingly breaking the rules? I haven’t heard even a tepid apology. And lest you think these look-the-other-way college payoff deals are always the adults’ fault, ask yourself this: What exactly are college coaches supposed to do if the players lie to them as well?
Sure, you can see a kid driving a new car and say, “Where did you get that?” And when the kid says, “My aunt bought it for me,” and you check out the ownership and the aunt’s name is indeed there, what are you supposed to do? You could keep prying. You could tell the kid he’s lying. You could hold his hand over the fire. You could demand to see every receipt for every watch, every piece of jewelry, every new shirt. You could follow him home on weekends. And you still might not find out what’s going on.
What you will do is alienate your players, and your team, and possibly new recruits who learn that, in addition to a coach, they are about to acquire a security guard.
At what point are these players actually responsible for their own actions? Sure. They’re 18 and 19 and 20. So? We send soldiers to war at that age and ask them to act responsibly. This is basketball. These kids know the rules. The rules are drilled into them. They sign documents that say they will not take money.
Some take it anyhow.
Do the right thing
And you know what? Many of those who take money and favors do so not out of ignorance or need, but out of blatant disrespect for the university. They see the school as an exploiter. They see their services as “underpaid.” Why shouldn’t they get some money for what they do? Remember what several U-M players said of Martin? He knew us when we were kids. He’s from our neighborhood. We trust him more than some stuffy, suburban, elitist college.
Which, in my mind, only makes the NCAA violations more the players’ fault than anyone else’s. Take the Webber situation, for example. Whatever money he accepted from Martin — and even he admits he took something — do you really think he took it because he was starving? His parents worked. All his college costs were paid for. When Webber took money it was because he wanted it, and he didn’t believe in respecting the system. Neither did Jalen Rose, Traylor, Bullock or anyone else who was on Martin’s goodies list.
It wasn’t the coaches or athletic directors telling them to break the rules. It was the kids doing it on their own.
“We have let down all who believe that the University of Michigan should stand for the best in college athletics,” Coleman said.
Not on your own, you didn’t.
So here’s an idea: Get some of the money back. Sue for it. If the scholarships and the exposure weren’t enough for Webber, Traylor, Taylor, Bullock or the rest, then they can return the cost. Charge them for whatever a normal student would have paid for tuition, books, food, medical attention, airplane rides, and any other privileges they received for being athletes. It might not be millions, but it will be symbolic. And while they’re at it, charge them part of the almost $450,000 Michigan now has to return to the NCAA. It at least will hold these kids responsible for something. Make it part of every commitment letter you sign with every new recruit from this point forward.
Because what you have now isn’t working. Players come to places like Michigan and see it as a mutual exploitation society. They play for free and get exploited, so why not take money and favors and exploit the rules? Why not leave after a year or two, not worrying about the program or the team? They use me, I use them.
Fine. If we’ve become so crass, so be it. But if both sides are using, then both sides should be paying. I watched Michigan hand itself a bill Thursday. When do we invoice the rest of the culprits?
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.