So let’s distract from the world burning down and talk some sports. Namely the Houston Astros, whose attempts at electronic cheating in 2017 have apparently tainted their World Series win in a way unprecedented since the 1919 Black Sox. The biggest consolation for me in this is that Tony Kemp was not implicated at all (and apparently refused the system lest it screw him up) and that a Houston team that set all of MLB on the path of “burn it down and refuse to compete for three years” is now being socially punished for malfeasance, and maybe other teams will be discouraged from the course of “let’s charge major league price for AAA baseball because we’re sucking to get better…someday”.
I say socially punished because really, what is the alternative? You can’t punish the players without the cooperation of a players’ union with whom you have an extremely antagonistic relationship (the current crisis is good preparation for the inevitable lockout when the CBA expires). You fired the manager and GM…two years after the fact. It’s not like the Dodgers are going to get made whole for this, any more than Cal got made whole in 2004 when a cheating U$C team pipped them out of the Pac-10 title and their first Rose Bowl berth since 1959. In fact, that’s the problem with sports cheating: nobody can be made whole after the fact. You were there, you saw the confetti and saw them hoist the trophy and went to the parade, and taking down the banner and collecting the trophy is meaningless after. What are you going to do, send the sheriff around to confiscate the merch? Put everyone through the Men In Black neuralyzer so they forget it?
That’s what makes punishment a farce in the NCAA: you can’t really punish anything. You can make teams hurt after the fact, but stripping a rack of scholarships from Penn State and SC didn’t keep them from meeting in the Rose Bowl within a decade after. It begs the question whether it’s worth trying to punish teams at all, and way too many – if the abortive Adidas-FBI basketball investigation is anything – merely accept these nefarious practices as the price of doing business and carry right on. Because the reward of doing so is greater by far than the risk of getting caught.
From 1980 to 1984, Southern Methodist University posted the highest winning percentage in all of Division I-A football. They went 49-9-1 over 5 seasons, contending for the national title despite spending part of that stretch on “probation” for all the same violations that ran rife through the old Southwest Conference. Then, in 1987, the NCAA pointed to the the existence of a slush fund for payments that had been known about for years, and gave them the death penalty – the first and only time a football program had been shut down completely.
Two years later, the program came back to life. Their first season back was 1989. Their first winning season after that was 1997, when they went 6-5. Their second non-losing season was 6-6, in 2006. Their first bowl bid was 2009. They finally got to double digit wins and finished the season ranked under Sonny Dykes…in 2019. The death penalty was an atomic bomb to the Mustangs that reverberated for three decades.
And the NCAA never used it again. They did other things – bowl probation, scholarship reductions, they once kept Auburn football off television in a season where they went 11-0 (and promptly claimed a national title) – but never again did they unholster the most powerful weapon they had. Not for Miami’s Pell Grant scandal. Not for USC’s flagrance with Reggie Bush or Tennessee’s with Tee Martin. Not for Alabama and the Logan Young scandal, despite threatening it even though there was no finding of lack of institutional control or staff culpability. Not for Penn State, despite embodying the very definition of “lack of institutional control.”
The “official” reasoning behind the unwillingness to use the death penalty in college football is because of the implications for other teams in the conference, the impact on television, the fact that it’s such a severe blow to the teams it’s used against. But that’s the point. If you have to weather a couple of years of probation, fewer scholarships, maybe the coach loses his job if the team only wins six games, but cheating means a shot at the sweet sweet lucre of the New Years Six (unless you’re one of the six or seven actual Playoff contending teams, in which case you better be cheating as much as Bama/Clemson/Ohio State) – there’s no arithmetic there. You cheat. Get caught, get fired, and you’ll probably still get a few years at Father Saban’s Home for Wayward Coaches. I think the last coach to wash all the way out of coaching with no TV safety net was the late Woody Widenhofer, who wound up working a toll booth in Florida at one point. If Urban Meyer and Houston Nutt can be on TV, anyone can.
But the death penalty is meaningful consequences. It’s money out of your pocket, maybe for the entire athletic program, maybe for the entire conference. Hell, the Southwest Conference never recovered from having SMU firebombed out of existence. And now that the NCAA has demonstrated they won’t do it again, it’s all for naught.
Not that baseball can firebomb the Astros out of existence. But if we had a real commissioner of baseball – which we haven’t had since 1993, when Fay Vincent was terminated for being insufficiently supportive of the small market owners’ cash grab – with the actual powers to act in the best interests of baseball, it would be possible to do things to the Astros that would get everyone’s attention. Deny them their share of national TV rights money. Deny them September callups (well, that got done to everyone already). Suspend players who were implicated in the scheme even if they’re on other teams and allow those teams to sign replacements – or. better, compensate them with Astros draft picks. If the Houston Asterisks were willing to suck out loud for three years, they shouldn’t have a problem with ten more.
(And spare me the mention of Barry Bonds. Either you wipe all the steroid people from baseball or you don’t, but you don’t get to pick one guy to die for the sins of MLB because you didn’t like his personality. Bud Selig looked the other way on steroids, and so God sent His messenger to take that which Bud cherished most. Fair is fair.)