Commentary

In the end, was anyone really punished?

Originally Published: August 20, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

We waited eight weeks for this?

For a punishment that has the bite of a 15-year-old golden retriever?

The NCAA Committee on Infractions just released its decision on Memphis, a decision that includes punishment for major infractions.

And the penalty is basically to tell us it never happened.

Unless the folks in Indianapolis have the ability to give group-rate lobotomies and erase the memories of every college basketball fan circa 2007-08, vacating the Final Four means nothing.

I was there. I saw it. So did 43,257 other people in San Antonio and millions more on television. The NCAA can mandate a whole lot of things with that gigantic rulebook. It cannot, at last check, control minds.

Without question this is an embarrassment to Memphis and to John Calipari. The Tigers' shining moment and Calipari's crowning coaching achievement to date are tainted. That will hurt, haunt and sting Memphis fans forever. It will be a line in Calipari's bio until he retires -- perhaps the one that keeps him out of the Hall of Fame.

Derrick Rose/John Calipari
AP Photo/Eric GayLast year, Derrick Rose and John Calipari were leading Memphis to the NCAA title game. Suffice it to say, quite a lot has changed since then.

Kelvin Sampson got tarred, feathered and run out of the game (and rightly so) for phone digit-itis. Yet Memphis, John Calipari and Derrick Rose get the amnesia penalty for a fraudulent SAT score and free rides on a team plane.

Instead of righteous indignation today, there ought to be a whole lot of brow wiping in Memphis and Kentucky. This could have been ugly, it probably should have been ugly and yet this is nothing more than a public-relations burn. The guilty move on, prosper and survive.

And there are plenty of guilty parties.

Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson hired John Calipari, he of the voided Final Four run at UMass. Johnson signed off on admitting players other than Rose who were marginally qualified academically -- an ESPN.com report showed Robert Dozier's test score was red-flagged as he was trying to gain admission to Georgia.

In regard to this specific investigation, Johnson agreed to let Reggie Rose on that plane. By the letter of the law it was OK. NCAA rules say a player's family can ride on the team plane so long as that opportunity is afforded to the general public.

But it turned out to be a slippery slope to disaster. One missed payment -- or in this case, more than $1,700 worth -- and Memphis had itself a violation (and by the way, how could Reggie Rose be unaware that he didn't pay? That's not exactly chump change for a man who isn't a Rockefeller).

To be sure, it would be unfair to make Josh Pastner and the current crop of Tigers suffer. One need only look at the scorched earth of Bloomington, Ind., to see how the innocent suffer for someone else's transgression. Pastner wasn't around during that season and neither were most of his current players.

But the university is culpable here and nonetheless goes on, business as usual.

What of Rose? He was the first pick of the 2008 NBA draft. Until that March, most everyone in college basketball figured Michael Beasley was a lock as the top pick. And then Rose became the South Region MVP, averaged 20.8 points and six assists per game in the tourney, led Memphis to the national championship game and catapulted ahead of Beasley.

If his test score is called into question before he enrolls at Memphis, he's Brandon Jennings. If it happens early in the season, who knows where he's drafted? (Remember: He struggled early in his freshman season.) If it happens before March, Beasley is the No. 1 pick.

Instead Rose drew a royal flush, signed a multimillion-dollar contract with the Bulls and a shoe deal with adidas and went on to become the NBA Rookie of the Year.

The NCAA is equally responsible, yet gets off easily. Its Eligibility Center OK'd Rose.

Its defense? The Eligibility Center is only as good as the information it receives. Perhaps an attempt to be proactive instead of reactive would do the trick?

Yes, perhaps -- wouldn't we all look forward to this day? -- it's time for the NCAA to turn the tables and investigate how it investigates. I think we can all agree that it's long overdue.

And let's throw Kentucky into the mix, shall we? When Indiana hired Sampson despite his NCAA infractions at Oklahoma, the university was hit with all sorts of recruiting limitations and a stern warning to mind its p's and q's when it came to compliance.

Kentucky hired Calipari three months after the NCAA sent its original letter of investigation. And UK, with a history that includes six major infractions cases, was aware of the letter. Calipari wasn't implicated in the investigation, but when Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart hired him, the investigation wasn't complete. Ask people familiar with an NCAA investigation and they will tell you no one is in the clear. Nothing is settled until the day the COI makes its findings official.

At the very least Barnhart knew he was getting a coach who might become the inaugural member of the Hall of Ignominy, the only man to serve as head coach in two vacated Final Four seasons at two different schools.

And the NCAA has placed no restrictions on Kentucky. Heck, John Wall's family already is choosing window or aisle for the upcoming season.

Finally, of course, there is Calipari, the lightning rod of college basketball.

No, his name is not on this report. No, his name is not on the UMass report.

But he is the common denominator in both cases.

And the fact is, he too took a ride on the lucky train. If this investigation had been made public before April 1, the day he was hired at Kentucky, there's a good chance someone else would be wearing Wildcats blue.

Instead all was quiet, and before the hammer fell at Memphis, he bolted. His punishment? He's now the highest-paid coach in college basketball, with a legion of supporters -- including the governor of Kentucky -- lined up to defend him.

In 1866, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote "Crime and Punishment."

Now, 143 years later, we finally have the sequel:

"Crime without Punishment."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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