Louisville's Postseason Ban Turns College Athletes into Collateral Damage

Louisville's self-imposed men's basketball postseason ban for alleged NCAA rules violations mostly hurts innocent athletes. A former Division I player argues that there has to be a better way.

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Feb 11 2016, 3:32pm

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Less than a year ago, I sat in a gym in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, as Brewster Academy hosted New Hampton in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC) basketball semifinals. I've known the coaches at both schools for most of my life, so I try to catch a few games every year and keep tabs on the emerging talent.

Of the many future Division I college players in the game, one young man in particular stood out: Donovan Mitchell, an athletic guard who could slash, shoot the ball, and lockdown on defense. He was a thrill to watch and, based on everything I heard, unanimously regarded as a great kid.

Read More: What I Paid To Be a Division I Athlete

Brewster won the game, and went on to win both the NEPSAC championship and the prep school national championship—a storybook finish to Mitchell's impressive prep career. One of the great things about the New England prep hoops scene is getting to see high-level players like future NBAers Mitch McGary and Nerlens Noel play in small gyms one year, then dominate the grand stage of the NCAA tournament the next.

It was glaringly obvious that Mitchell could be one of those guys at his future school, the University of Louisville.

Of course, Mitchell won't be having any impact in this year's March Madness—not after last Friday, when Louisville announced it was self-imposing a postseason ban on the men's basketball team, effective immediately. The decision to sit out both the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) tournament and the NCAA tournament comes during an ongoing investigation into alleged NCAA rule violations committed by the school's basketball program between 2010 and 2014. It effectively pulls the plug on the team's impressive 18-4 start.

This is total bullshit.

Why is Donovan Mitchell being punished? Photo by Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

It's not bullshit because of the allegations themselves, nor because Louisville has one of the best teams in the country. No, it's bullshit because it's a crude and wholly unfair form of punishment that basically misses the mark, affecting all of the school's current basketball players, regardless of whether they had anything to do with the supposed violations or not.

Oh, and it's not just Mitchell and his teammates getting a raw deal. It's all of college basketball.

Over the past year, several basketball programs spanning different levels of competition have self-imposed postseason bans due to investigations into NCAA rule violations: Syracuse University, Southern Methodist University, the University of the Pacific, the University of Hawaii, Cal State Northridge, and Missouri. If you're a college basketball player or planning to become one, here's what that means: no matter where you play, you could just as easily be blindsided and pay the price for something that happened in your program years before your arrival on campus.

Can you imagine? It's like getting a fine in the mail because the guy who owned your used car before you was pulled over for speeding.

For a better sense of how absurd this is, consider Kaleb Joseph. A fellow New Hampshire native, he's currently a sophomore guard at Syracuse. Last February, the school self-imposed a postseason ban just weeks before the start of the ACC tournament. The punishment came on the heels of an eight-year NCAA investigation into violations that occurred from 2004-07 and 2010-12.

Joseph was born in 1995. What sense does it make having him pay the price for transgressions that he had nothing to do with, some of which occurred while he was in elementary school?

Kaleb Joseph was on the Pokemon side of puberty when some of Syracuse's NCAA rules violations took place. Photo by Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Look, I get that schools need to take responsibility when rule-breaking occurs within their basketball programs—or at least look like they're doing so. Somebody has to get punished. Thing is, postseason bans turn justice upside-down. They disproportionately hurt the wrong people.

When you're a player, like I once was, college basketball is all about March. The dream of hearing your team's name called on Selection Sunday makes all of the track workouts, strength training, film sessions, and endless practice that much easier to stomach. A breakout performance in the NCAA tournament can springboard any player into the national spotlight and be a nice resume booster for the NBA Draft or that first gig playing pro ball overseas. Taking postseason play away from a team is effectively stealing an entire year of eligibility away from its players. The season no longer really matters. One of their four years, gone, just like that.

As for the coaches? The well-paid buck-stoppers who are, you know, supposed to be ultimately accountable for what happens on their watch? Sure, a postseason ban sucks, but Jim Boeheim has been the head coach at Syracuse since 1976. That's 40 years of running the Orange. Rick Pitino landed his first head-coaching job in 1978. A one-year NCAA tournament hiatus isn't quite as big of a deal to these guys as it is to their players.

Here's the good news: a number of well-meaning college basketball commentators and observers have called out universities for self-imposed postseason bans. Most of these people feel the NCAA shouldn't allow same-season bans, and that schools such as Louisville should only be permitted to punish themselves with bans that take place the following season—better for a team's seniors to finish out their careers, and for other players to transfer schools if they desire to do so.

This sounds nice. Thoughtful, even. But imagine you're a player like Mitchell or Joseph. Having to transfer, or even think about transferring, is still an unreasonable burden. You didn't do anything wrong, and now you have to start all over in a program and at a school that wasn't your first choice?

When coaches, players, or university administrators run afoul of NCAA rules, it's perfectly fair to punish them individually. It's completely unfair to punish players who had nothing to do with the problem, causing a lot of unnecessary damage along the way. Hell, even Pitino acknowledges this. So why have postseason bans at all? They're absurd. Want to punish a player who was directly involved with the violations? Go for it. Want to punish a school? Great. Fine the athletic department or the coach. Put the money toward something worthwhile. Maybe create a general fund that schools can tap into for something positive, like guaranteeing medical coverage for their players. Heck, if the violations are blatant and severe enough, maybe even fire the coach.

But leave players who aren't involved alone.

By allowing innocent players to be punished for past rule-breaking, the NCAA and its member schools have set a dangerous and terrible precedent. Maybe that shouldn't be surprising. After all, this is the same multibillion-dollar industry that claims in federal antitrust court that its primary purpose is education, all while punishing amateurism violations by stripping athletic programs of scholarships, each one a lost opportunity for a potential college athlete to pursue a degree.

Something needs to change. It's up to players and their families to stand up for themselves—to fight back against a lopsided power structure. Without a legitimate players association, they don't even have a say in what the rules are or how they're enforced. That should change, too.

I don't want to see any more stories like Mitchell's, with undeserving players being stripped of the biggest moments of their college basketball careers. I hope I'm not alone. Because if the status quo holds, something being done on a campus today is going to blindside a future college player currently sweating through a middle school practice or starring in a New England prep tournament. Another unassuming athlete who never saw it coming.