By JOE NOCERA
I donâ€™t know about you, but I had a hard time stomaching the sight of Jim Calhoun holding the championship trophy after Mondayâ€™s final game of the N.C.A.A. menâ€™s basketball tournament.
Not because it was a lousy game (though it was), but because Calhoun, the pugnacious coach of the University of Connecticut â€œprogramâ€ â€” as the big-money Division I teams are called â€” shouldnâ€™t have been allowed anywhere near the gym. Just weeks earlier, the N.C.A.A. had sanctioned him for â€œfailing to create an atmosphere of complianceâ€ with its recruiting rules. To put it more bluntly: UConn cheated. Among the punishments meted out was a three-game suspension for Calhoun.
But this is the N.C.A.A. weâ€™re talking about, an organization that bends over backward to accommodate big-time basketball schools like Connecticut that drive TV ratings, and marquee coaches like Calhoun, who, with his $2.3 million salary, is the highest-paid state employee in Connecticut. March Madness was right around the corner, so Calhounâ€™s suspension was (of course!) deferred until next season, allowing him to coach the team during the tournament. One of his own players described the schoolâ€™s penalties as â€œa slap on the wrist.â€
Shortly after Calhoun was handed his punishment, another member of an N.C.A.A. Division I program was also suspended â€” in his case, for six games. But he wasnâ€™t a multimillionaire coach. Rather, he was 19-year-old Perry Jones III, a talented, 6-foot-11, African-American freshman at Baylor University, who, coincidentally, was the subject of a terrific profile by Michael Sokolove in The New York Times Magazine a month ago.
Was Jones allowed to delay his suspension? Surely you jest. The N.C.A.A. suspended him literally hours before the teamâ€™s conference tournament. Without Jones, Baylor lost big.
That Baylorâ€™s season ended on such a sour note is hardly the tragedy here, of course. What is infuriating are the different ways Jones and Calhoun were treated, especially when you look at what they did. In trying to land a prized recruit, Calhoun and UConn broke the rules egregiously and repeatedly. Jonesâ€™s main crime was that he is poor.
Jones was in 10th grade when he supposedly broke the N.C.A.A.â€™s rules. (Thatâ€™s right. You can break N.C.A.A. rules years before you become part of the N.C.A.A.) His mother, a cafeteria worker, has a heart condition so serious that she will likely need a transplant. Sometimes sheâ€™s confined to a wheelchair, causing her to miss work. During one such period, she got behind on her rent.
Three times, she asked Jonesâ€™s A.A.U. coach, whom sheâ€™d known for years, to lend her $1,200 to pay the rent. Each time, she repaid the loan as soon as she got her paycheck. That, believe it or not, is Jonesâ€™s transgression.
Jones says he had no idea his mother was borrowing money to pay the rent, which is completely believable. If you needed a short-term loan to keep from getting evicted, would you tell your teenage son? Yet the N.C.A.A. says that because she got the money from the coach, Jones was getting a benefit not available to nonathletes.
(Jonesâ€™s second transgression was going to a preseason Dallas Cowboys game with that same coach. The N.C.A.A. declared this a $500 benefit and has demanded that he donate $500 to charity to make amends. It does not say where he is supposed to find the money.)
I asked Stacey Osburn, an N.C.A.A. spokeswoman, how a player could be held responsible for something done without his knowledge. I asked her why Jones had to sit while Cam Newton, the star quarterback at highly ranked Auburn, was allowed to continue playing after it was discovered that his father had tried to auction off his sonâ€™s talents to the highest bidder. I asked her why five players from Ohio State were allowed to play in the lucrative Sugar Bowl this year after they had been caught selling O.S.U. paraphernalia and pocketing the money â€” and why their coach got only a two-game suspension, even though he knew what they had done and said nothing.
She wouldnâ€™t give me a straight answer. â€œEvery situation is differentâ€ is the best she could do.
Jones is what is called a â€œone and doneâ€ freshman, a player who comes to college with the expectation that heâ€™ll jump to the N.B.A. after one season. As portrayed by The Times Magazine, though, he is such a gentle soul that he needs toughening up before heâ€™s ready for the pros. Another year of college ball would clearly help him. He seems to understand this.
Rumor has it that he enjoys Baylor and would like to stay another year. But heâ€™s still poor, and his motherâ€™s still ill â€” and thanks to the N.C.A.A., he has been needlessly humiliated. If youâ€™re Perry Jones, college canâ€™t seem very appealing these days.
As for Calhoun, The Times reported earlier this week that he will pocket an $87,500 bonus for winning the N.C.A.A. Championship. The rich white guy wins again.