Recruiting Violations and the Integrity of March Madness

The University of Connecticut men’s basketball team will not be playing in the championship game tonight, but recent turmoil surrounding the program raises important questions about the direction and credibility of college sports. One need not be a cynic to wonder, indeed suspect, that serious cheating has become the norm in big-money college sports. Accordingly, the integrity of the entire NCAA tournament is under a cloud. We may marvel at the athletic skill of North Carolina and Michigan State tonight, but can fans any longer say with assurance that those teams (or any others) got their players fair and square? Such suspicion is obviously unfair to those programs that do operate within the rules, but history makes it hard to believe that there are only a few bad apples out there.

NCAA rules clearly limit when and how often colleges may contact recruits. Colleges may not use alumni to recruit in their stead, and of course colleges may not give recruits money or other items of significant value as inducement to enroll. On top of this, prospective student-athletes must meet certain academic criteria in order to become eligible to play in Division 1 college sports.

The Yahoo! Sports allegations against Connecticut detail the knowing use of Connecticut alum Josh Nochimson, a former manager of the basketball team turned agent, to communicate with prized recruit Nate Miles. Connecticut coaches, including head coach Jim Calhoun, allegedly exchanged over 1,500 calls and text messages with Nochimson, who allegedly provided the recruit with meals and other items of value. If true, these accusations reveal something beyond an inadvertent slip that technically violated rules, nor a deliberate but small “bending” of rules. Instead, Connecticut appears to have completely flouted important rules in a way suggesting that such behavior was routine. How else could those involved have failed to stop and consider the wrongfulness and consequences of their behavior? Could they have done something like this only once, and “by accident”? It is only too easy to suspect that Calhoun and his staff knew exactly what they were doing, that it was wrong, and that is was necessary to maintain Connecticut’s long record of competitive success. Perhaps even more disturbing is the notion that Connecticut presumably did not have to do this to succeed. Its basketball program is one the most successful in the entire country, one to which top recruits would presumably flock in exchange for a valuable college degree. Did Connecticut correctly think that it would take “something extra” to get the best young basketball players to enroll?

For years, baseball treated allegations about steroids as a problem of individual miscreants. Baseball officials maintained that the sport was generally clean, and that drastic action wasn’t necessary to clean things up. Even after baseball declared steroids illegal, the sport did not take systemic, forceful action until prominent players made fools of themselves in front of Congress unsuccessfully denying their use of steroids. The public now generally believes that steroid use was the widespread, tarnishing the competitive integrity of the entire sport and devaluing the achievements of players who did not break the rules. Indeed, nothing has confirmed this suspicion more than the recent revelation that Alex Rodriguez, who (like Connecticut) did not have to cheat, somehow felt it necessary to do so.

The NCAA now risks going down the road taken by baseball. It presently treats recruiting violations as individual and rare, responding to complaints about these violations with investigations that impose sanctions without truly cleaning things up. Accordingly, institutions and individuals either believe they can avoid detection, or that the cost of detection is worth whatever illicit competitive advantage is gained. This is precisely the calculation that steroid users correctly made during baseball’s steroid era. Sosa, McGuire, Clemens, and Bonds made millions, and if they are to suffer consequences, it will be because they lied under oath about their steroid use. Those who “came clean” will keep their fortunes and their careers.

The NCAA, like baseball before it, needs to rethink how it enforces its rules. Baseball finally got serious about steroids when it imposed random testing and bans for those who get caught. The NCAA should do the same. It should consider random, outside audits of Division 1 institutions and coaches. If violations are found, institutions and coaches should suffer sanctions, the former with fines, lost games, and program suspensions, and the latter with suspensions from coaching.

Without question, such audits will be intrusive, burdensome, and expensive. And of course, determined individuals and institutions can avoid audits as others have avoided drug tests. That, however, is no reason to avoid drug tests, for they make it harder for people to cheat and send important signals. Indeed, drug tests and mandatory penalties have begun the process of restoring credibility to baseball and other sports, and better enforcement would do likewise for the NCAA. Only when institutions and coaches face true consequences from cheating will they stop.

There is, of course, one other alternative. The NCAA could admit that Division 1 basketball and football players are professionals. Institutions could then pay the players what they are worth in return for the fortunes they help universities earn.

Andy Pettitte and the Prohibition of Performance Enhancing Substances

George Mitchell’s recent report on performance enhancing drugs in baseball identified many players as users of various substances, including steroids and human growth hormone. Of those identified, Yankee ace Andy Pettitte is perhaps the most prominent to confirm his use of such substances and give his side of the story. In a nutshell, Pettitte claims he used HGH for 2 days in 2002 to help him recover from an injury, and that he did not take steroids or use HGH to gain a competitive advantage.

Pettitte’s explanation raises an interesting question about performance enhancing substances that has, to my limited knowledge, gone relatively unexamined in the aftermath of the Mitchell report. Is the use of performance enhancing substances somehow different when used for therapeutic purposes, as opposed to some kind of “on the field” advantage? If there is a difference, can or should sports permit or condone the use of those substances for therapeutic purposes?

Personally, I am skeptical that these distinctions should hold. As an initial matter, a “therapeutic use only” purpose presupposes that an athlete has a “natural” level of physical prowess that is being restored after injury. What is that natural level? Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that an athlete has a particular level of strength and coordination that he can reach without any kind of chemical enhancement. Once he reaches that peak, presumably in his early 20s, his body will begin to degrade under the stress of aging and injury. If therapeutic use were permitted, the athlete should be allowed to use HGH to “recover” from the injuries breaking down his body until he regains his hypothetical 20-something body. That sounds to me like a justification for most athletes to be using HGH all the time, because it promotes recovery from the every day injuries degrading their bodies. At the very least, it would become impossible to tell whether an athlete was “legitimately” using performance enhancement or faking injury.

This does not necessarily mean that Pettitte is deserving of condemnation. The whole premise of performance enhancing substances is troubled and likely to come under stress soon. I don’t think that performance enhancing substances can be banned out of some commitment to the “all-natural” athlete. Separate and apart from permissive use of certain prescription drugs, athletes are allowed to take “non-natural” things to help them all the time, whether ibuprofen to control swelling and pain, caffeine to increase alertness, or special sports drinks that never occur in nature. If athletes are already “non-natural,” it seems to me that the primary justification for banning steroids and the like is health. It’s unfair to ask an athlete to jeopardize her health (say increasing the risk of cancer) simply to participate in a sport.

But, if health is the primary justification for policies against performance enhancing substances, what happens when science designs steroids or other compounds that are no more dangerous than commonly taken over-the-counter drugs? It seems to me that this is the real question posed by Pettitte’s story. If his use of HGH was at a level that did not meaningfully risk his overall health, do we truly have a basis for criticizing him?