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Invisible Men
Alexander Wolff
November 18, 2002
A self-imposed punishment deleted five glorious Michigan seasons, but college basketball's larger problems remain
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November 18, 2002

Invisible Men

A self-imposed punishment deleted five glorious Michigan seasons, but college basketball's larger problems remain

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During the 1990s Michigan's basketball teams captivated fans with their exuberant play. But ever since retired autoworker Ed Martin pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges last May, maize-and-blue heads have been hanging lower than the Wolverines' signature shorts. In his plea agreement Martin said that he gave four players—Claris Webber, Maurice Taylor, Robert Traylor and Louis Bullock—a total of $616,000, mostly from gambling winnings. As a result the school announced last week that it would forfeit 113 wins, return to the NCAA $450,000 in tournament revenue, hold the team out of the postseason this season and remove banners from Crisler Arena, including those from the Fab Five's 1992 and '93 trips to the Final Four and the '98 Big Ten title (above right). "This," president Mary Sue Coleman declared last Thursday, "is a day of great shame."

For leaving tickets for Martin and letting prospects go to his house on recruiting visits, the university has shown belated regrets. (The sanctions seem designed to mitigate penalties the NCAA might yet impose.) But the players who stonewalled school and NCAA investigators seem neither to share in Coleman's shame nor to respect the organizations under whose auspices they built their careers. Steven Fishman, the lawyer for Traylor and Bullock, explained why his clients first denied, then admitted, taking money: "Lying to the NCAA is one thing. Lying to a grand jury is another." Webber allegedly did lie to the grand jury and is facing federal charges. He has said that he took only pocket change from Martin. Also, in 1994, Webber, then a rookie with the Warriors, had ripped the collegiate system for exploiting him: "There were times I didn't have enough money to get a pizza. A pizza!" Yet Martin says, and the feds believe, that Webber and his family collected $280,000, which is a lot of pepperoni.

As for baloney, listen to Taylor, who pocketed $105,000. "The NCAA uses kids all the time," he said last week. "How can you be making money off somebody else and not giving anything to them?" Coleman ought to be most ashamed that a former student regards a Michigan education—which costs a typical in-state student about $8,000 a year—as "not giving anything."

But every party in this mess needs to adjust its attitude. Why should an athlete like Taylor respect education when the establishment shows it so little regard? Last month the NCAA dropped a standardized-test-score cutoff from its initial eligibility requirements, decreeing that a high school athlete with a combined SAT score of 400—what you get for signing your name—could play right away, as long as he or she has a grade point average of 3.55. By conditioning eligibility almost entirely on high school GPA, the NCAA is inviting fraud. A kid who scores a 400 has no business logging a 3.55 GPA, yet teachers and counselors have long inflated grades or fixed transcripts outright, and now will have more incentive to do so. As the man said: Grade-fixing is only lying to the NCAA. And with that organization also exploring ways to relax its formula for calculating graduation rates, the books will get cooked coming and going.

If the NCAA were serious about reform, it would abolish freshman eligibility and dock schools one scholarship for every player they fail to graduate. And it would impose stiffer penalties on Michigan in the coming months, including scholarship reductions and a ban on TV appearances. Other schools are sure to join the Wolverines in purgatory until the NCAA addresses the core problem: unqualified kids who come to campus and play for "free" when they'd really rather be doing it for pay somewhere else.

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