When Syracuse University announced on Wednesday that it was self-imposing a one-year postseason ban "as a further means of acknowledging past mistakes," I was reminded of an old Steven Wright routine.
I owed my friend George $25. For about three weeks I owed it to him. The whole time I had the money on me -- he didn't know it. Walking through New York City, 2:30 in the morning and got held up. He said, "Gimme all your money." I said, "Wait a minute." I said, "George, here's the 25 dollars I owe you."
This has been the worst Syracuse basketball season in seven years, the last time the Orange didn't make the tournament. They're 15-7, 6-3 in the ACC, but way down at 70 in the RPI, and 75 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. Bracketologists like Joe Lunardi, Jerry Palm and Chris Dobbertean didn't have them in the tournament this year, and only Dobbertean had them even close. (He listed them in the First Four Out.) The Orange are young, with only one senior in their rotation, and generally considered a team that's a year or two away from being up to the quality we have come to expect from Jim Boeheim. In other words: This season was going nowhere, slowly.
Thus: Time for a self-imposed ban! This has long been one of the more amusing peccadillos of college athletics. In 2011, Miami, also with some down teams in the wake of the Nevin Shapiro scandal, self-imposed a two-year bowl ban, and when the NCAA ultimately made its own ruling in 2013, it didn't ban the Hurricanes from any more postseasons, citing their "unprecedented self-imposed sanctions." USC did the same thing. Currently, Hawaii, having been busted for "illegal benefits" for some of its basketball players -- and later lying to the NCAA about them -- has leaked that in order to "lessen the blow" of NCAA sanctions. It will likely be trimming some scholarships and inflicting some other self-punishment.
Traditionally, this has worked. The NCAA, which always pretends it's some overarching skeptical authority but is only scraping by to survive right now, "takes into account" self-punishments. It usually adds only a few cosmetic "punishments" to whatever the school had already decided its punishment should be. This happens so constantly that we barely even notice it anymore. Remember Mississippi State, the feel-good story of last year's college football season? Currently under self-imposed probation. Was that mentioned even once this past season? I didn't notice it.
Now, the idea of "self-imposed" punishments for offenses that were only admitted to after they were discovered -- offenses that the school was by definition hiding from view -- is pretty hilarious, and completely unique to college sports. Imagine if our legal system worked like this. Well, Chief, we don't really have to throw him in the slammer: He's already cuffed himself! Wait, where did he go? He was just here. When you take a step back from it, it seems like the most absurd thing in the world.
Step One: Violate rule.
Step Two: Hide violation.
Step Three: Have violation discovered.
Step Four: Commence "self-investigation."
Step Five: "Discover" violation.
Step Six: "Report" violation.
Step Seven: Punish self.
Step Eight: Profit.
Syracuse, which, by the way, has yet to let us know the violations it is actually punishing itself for, has apparently been under investigation by the NCAA since 2007. Yet -- and this might be the best part--- the general perception is that by self-imposing this postseason ban, the athletic department is actually getting out ahead of this story; this is what passes for proactive. This punishment is somewhat similar to the last time Syracuse was punished for violations, back in 1992. Obviously, Boeheim and company were sent reeling from that punishment; as noted by Syracuse.com, they've won 572 games since then, made it to 17 NCAA tournaments and claimed one national championship. There have been questions about how this will affect Boeheim's "legacy," but you tell me: Did you remember the 1992 violations? Do you think of them every time you think of Boeheim or the school? We'll forget these too.
This is a rather solid road map for North Carolina, which oh yeah is almost still in the midst of a sort-of unprecedented and massive academic fraud scandal that has apparently been going on for 20 years. This story rocked the college sports world -- beloved, sainted Carolina! -- back in October the way every story rocks the college sports world anymore: for about a day or two, until everyone forgot about it. North Carolina is a projected No. 3 seed in the tourney, so there's no reason for it to pull a Syracuse this year, but during a down year? Heck, give it a shot. It will show, in the truest and most honest sense, just how seriously it takes this.
And you know what the best irony of all this is? This probably is how seriously they should take this. In this day and age of the NCAA's waning influence, the widespread professionalism of college sports, the shocking amount of money that college athletics now brings in from television (none of which, I remind, goes to the players we're all paying to watch) … how worked up can any of us possibly get about players receiving under-the-table benefits or having someone do their schoolwork anyway? Are you really that offended by what Syracuse did? (Whatever, uh, it is it admitted to doing, which, again, it still hasn't told us.) North Carolina? Miami? When ESPN is paying $7.3 billion for the College Football Playoff, we're really pretending there's something legitimately untoward about any of this?
Yesterday was college football's signing day, an enormous spectacle, a day-long orgy of wealthy college football programs celebrating their ability to get teenagers to sign over their lives and bodies to them, for free, for four years. (The only thing I kept thinking yesterday was "well, that school must have terrific bagmen.") The idea that any of this is "amateur," or has anything to do with "school" is a myth we're all too immature to call out. We're having too much fun to do so.
In the wake of all this, the idea of Syracuse placing itself under citizen's arrest isn't absurd, or unfair, or unusually craven. It seems like the most logical thing in the world. Sure, it's self-policing at the most opportunistic time. But I'm not even sure why we're bothering to police at all anymore. With the actual construction of college sports as currently constructed such a wide-scale felony, why bother with petty misdemeanors? The punishment, ultimately, is as senseless as the crime. At this point, the only reasoned response is to drop the façade and ignore both.