WRONG FOLKS PAYING FOR MICHIGAN’S PAST SINS

Chris Webber promised to buy each of his teammates a brand-new Mercedes if Sacramento won the NBA title last year. This year, he’s setting a higher standard. “The championship will be enough,” he says.

It must be nice to have such options, unbounded wealth, long-sought victories. Too bad Webber’s alma mater, the University of Michigan, won’t be so lucky. The school won’t be buying any Mercedes; it’s too busy giving back money, losing scholarships, and forfeiting the right to even try to win a national championship next year — thanks to violations Webber and others committed when they were students there.

Old crimes. New victims. There has always been something blatantly unfair about the way the NCAA punishes rule breakers, because it runs from behind the pack, so it can only lasso the rear horses. By the time the NCAA discovers infractions, the athlete in question is usually gone, the coach is often gone, and in the rare case with Michigan, the money man is dead.

What to do if you’re the sheriff? You punish who you can. In this case, that means a coach who wasn’t there and players who weren’t there — in addition to the school that was. One more year, with no postseason tournament, the NCAA declared Thursday, plus the loss of one scholarship per season for four years: This was the additional punishment for the seemingly unending Ed Martin booster scandal.

“We were stunned when we heard about the postseason ban,” said U-M athletic director Bill Martin. “There were lots of things they could have done. They didn’t have to punish the kids on this year’s team.”

Old sins. New victims.

Wrong victims

Now, before anyone panics, this is not a death knell to Michigan basketball. Given the size of the money allegedly involved (more than $600,000 is accused of passing hands from Martin to four key players), a two-year postseason ban is not unprecedented. The Wolverines already missed one postseason by their internal punishments. So they get one more. It’s not earth-shaking.

But that doesn’t make it fair. We are talking about something that happened a number of years ago. The current crop of Michigan players — who already sat home last March — will now miss two cracks at the big dance. We might say,
“So what?” but to players, it’s an irreplaceable highlight. Remember, they get only four years of eligibility. I don’t see anyone giving them an extra season.

Here is what Thomas Yeager, the chairman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, said about Michigan: “The reputation of the university, the student athletes, and the coach — as a result of the basketball team’s accomplishments from 1992 through 1998 — were a sham.”

Well. That’s a tad harsh. Not everything was a sham. But if this were a court, the 1992-98 people would be on trial.

Instead, only the school is on trial. The people? Well. I just saw Robert Traylor in the NBA playoffs. Maurice Taylor was mouthing off recently about how he took the money and so what? Webber is rich enough to buy a fleet of Mercedes. Steve Fisher, the former coach, has a new job in the sunshine of California, along with his favorite assistant, Brian Dutcher.

And Martin — who would never have faced any NCAA penalties anyhow — is dead.

Can you have a trial with no defendants?

Ordeal finally over

Apparently so. The school was found guilty. The school must pay. And it pays with its current team.

The bad news? No tournament next year decreases visibility, and makes recruiting harder. One less recruit for four years means one less chance for some kid who dreamed of playing for Michigan. It also means you had better be right about the kids you do recruit.

The good news: This is over. Michigan says it will appeal the one-year postseason ban, and it is not impossible that the case could be won.

But as bad as some U-M fans feel this morning, they should breathe a sigh of relief, for this fiasco has finally reached a water mark. The dangling shadow is gone. The program now has a good, rules-abiding coach, Tommy Amaker. It made a fine show in the second half of last season.

The future is crimped, but not bleak. The past? It has been wiped from the record books. The Fab Five era doesn’t exist — no banners, no stats, no records in the books.

The only thing left is the hypocrisy. The current roster pays the fine. Webber and company get rich but pay nothing, even though they signed papers while at U-M saying they didn’t break the rules. And the NCAA continues to manhunt players for receiving five bucks from an outsider, while raking in billions of dollars from television, and letting coaches jump from school to school while athletes are held prisoner.

Perhaps Mr. Yeager should re-examine the word “sham.” There’s a lot of it going around.

A BREAKDOWN OF THE MICHIGAN BASKETBALL PENALTIES

Basketball sanctions imposed by Michigan in November:

* A one-year ban on play in postseason tournaments.

* Removal of banners from Crisler Arena celebrating achievements during the scandal years.

* Forfeiture of half of its games in the past decade.

* Repayment of $442,000 in NCAA tournament revenues.

* Two years of probation for the athletic department.

What the NCAA added this week:

* An additional one-year postseason ban.

* A loss of one scholarship per year from 2004-05 through 2007-08.

* Another two years of probation, ending Nov. 6, 2006.

* Disassociation from former stars Chris Webber, Robert Traylor, Maurice Taylor and Louis Bullock for at least 10 years, including deletion of their statistics from the record book.

* A public censure and reprimand.

What’s next:

* Michigan intends to appeal the postseason ban.

* U-M expects to have a hearing before the NCAA infractions appeals committee this summer and receive a response by late summer or early fall.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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