Politics & Policy

Syracuse vs. Georgetown: What the Headlines Don’t Tell Us

Basketball is in the headlines, but football is the great corrupter in college sports.

Headlines, even in sports, can be deceptive. But it’s hard getting around the contrast in last weekend’s banners regarding two universities that are involved in one of the greatest (though temporarily suspended) rivalries in college basketball.

On one side is Syracuse. Having already removed themselves from postseason play due to self-reported academic infractions, the Orange were hit by the NCAA with more severe penalties: five years’ probation, twelve forfeited scholarships over the next four years, and the vacating of 108 wins accumulated with the efforts of academically ineligible players.

On the other, Georgetown. As the team prepared for a season-ending win over Seton Hall, Hoyas coach John Thompson III announced that senior Tyler Adams, sidelined since December of his freshman year with a heart ailment, would start and stay in the game for one play. The move was not spontaneous: “JTIII” first requested permission from the NCAA in late 2013 for Adams, the recipient of a medical-hardship waiver that allowed him to stay at Georgetown on scholarship, to suit up once more. (Adams would score.)

The temptation to simplify is almost irresistible: Good Georgetown, bad Syracuse; Thompson’s virtues over Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s ambitions; genuine student-athletes on the one hand, a basketball factory on the other. And, at least for the moment, the contrast has the ring of truth. But Syracuse is not the only storied program with severe academic violations; North Carolina, among others, is in trouble and waiting for more NCAA shoes to drop. And Georgetown is hardly the only “clean” program to escape the NCAA’s wrath. The lessons here run far deeper than just another chapter in the Hoyas–Orange rivalry.

One could start with the single factor that ended their intra-conference rivalry (and almost killed the Big East as a premier basketball conference): Big-time football. Syracuse and other myopic Eastern aspirants to gridiron’s brass ring (Rutgers, Connecticut, Pittsburgh) could not support themselves as Big East members and needed the TV-swollen wallets of the Atlantic Coast Conference or the Big Ten to survive.

The football corrosion infects all of major college sports. It caused the road-wearying conference shuffling of the past five years, which was all football-driven. Even at that, few college football teams make money, so “non-revenue” sports are being sacrificed right and left. Syracuse, with a reported endowment comparable to Georgetown’s (and far better facilities), is down to the NCAA minimum seven men’s sports; Northwestern, with an endowment 650 percent larger, fields a measly eight (but does gets props for keeping wrestling, which was the first sport to go at many schools). Georgetown, on the other hand, fields 12 men’s teams as well as 13 women’s (compared with 11 for Syracuse). This includes football, which, due to a questionable 25-year-old NCAA rule, the Hoyas must play at the level of Division I simply because it plays Division I basketball.

Football aside, Georgetown remains nationally competitive: Its runners, always among the nation’s elite, snared the NCAA women’s cross-country title in 2011, and its men’s soccer squad played in the 2012 NCAA final. Until a recent downturn, the Georgetown women’s basketball team was a perennial participant in the NCAA tournament.

The point is, high participation, multiple sports, and academic and athletic success can all be done together — even at Georgetown, with finances and facilities that are anemic when compared with those of any prominent state school, or even of “peers” such as Stanford, Duke, Notre Dame, and Northwestern. With every respect to what the Thompsons (“Jr.” and “III”) have accomplished on the Hilltop, they are part of (and vast contributors to) a Georgetown legacy that extends back more than a century and, with a secure home in the now-football-shorn Big East Conference, will continue for student-athletes in an array of sports well into the future. Georgetown’s decision to stick with Tyler Adams, and to make sure he got the education he wanted more than hoops glory, is another brick in that legacy.

Just as there is no need to canonize JT III, this is no time to demonize Jim Boeheim. Again, it’s tempting; his whining visage on the sidelines is as much a part of Georgetown–Syracuse lore as the Thompson Scowl, and some violations occurred years after Syracuse first self-reported to the NCAA. Plus the facts bear out that the Hall of Fame coach lost control of his program, allowing assistant coaches to go far past the line of “monitoring” academic performance and, in that old chestnut of rules infractions, turning a blind eye to boosters subsidizing make-work summer jobs.

Yet no one man defines a culture, and it wasn’t just basketball. The ’Cuse football team saw three seasons of wins vacated and will remain on probation through 2020. Anyone within sniffing distance of a college athletic department over the past decade or so knows that “compliance” has taken on the stature of a sacrament, and compliance officers are vested with authority that medieval clerics would have envied. Coach Boeheim, who, for all his annoyances, has given far more back to the game than he has taken from it, was simply not held accountable by an institution, up to and including its president, that chose not to peek under the hood — and even after it did, apparently closed the lid. (Syracuse first self-reported, in 2007, violations dating back to 2001; it accumulated further serious violations in 2010–12.)

Syracuse and Boeheim are but a symptom of college sports run amok, corrupted far more by behemoth football than by basketball, with its smaller squads and better competitive balance. (Butler recently made two consecutive appearances in the NCAA men’s championship game, and New Jersey Institute of Technology beat Michigan this season — in Ann Arbor.) While the Syracuse scandal is largely, though not exclusively, a basketball story, North Carolina’s seems to cut an equal swath between the two sports. But make no mistake, when it comes to power in college athletics, football rules the roost and is the source of the power that corrupts. It is an insatiable financial beast that must be fed, and this can only be done (with few exceptions) by betraying the student-athlete ideal on a massive scale, and by further reducing opportunities for athletes in “minor” sports who would be far more likely to meet that ideal.

Until the football virus is isolated — preferably in a realignment that gives the 40 or 50 plausible football powers their own leagues and rules, along with stern directives to leave the rest of college sports alone — Jim Boeheim will not be the last to suffer the terrible swift sword of noncompliance.

— Edward R. Grant graduated from Georgetown University, where he ran track and cross-country and worked in the sports information office.

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