With clockwork efficiency, the NCAA got themselves into yet another pickle this week, as is their wont. Following their win in last night's Division I Men's Basketball Championship Game, Louisville asked if it would be okay to send the men's team down to New Orleans to support the women's team as they attempt to complete the double tonight against UConn. The NCAA said no, and all hell exploded as pretty much every talking head, sportswriter, and Twitter warrior erupted in paroxysms of rage and indignation.
Problem #1: The NCAA was right.
What Louisville was asking, at first blush, seems to be a completely reasonable thing. "Hey, our guys have trundled across campus to support the girls all year, seems wrong not to let them be there for the biggest game of the year." There's merit to that, but there's a difference between walking across campus to attend a game for which they probably already have student tickets and taking a trip to another city to watch a game for which the tickets they don't yet have are a lot more expensive. Yet the hue and cry went up, accusing the NCAA of using arcane, heartless, and capricious rules to screw over a bunch of kids.
Problem #2: Nobody should have expected the NCAA to respond any other way.
Impermissible benefits. It's the most basic rule in the NCAA rulebook relating to college athletes: you can't pay them (except for their scholarship, which has more financial value than the salary of almost any minor-league athlete on the planet but that's another discussion). You can't give them anything which isn't available to all students under the exact same terms, unless the NCAA rules explicitly make exceptions. Well, sending the men to New Orleans and giving them admission to the most expensive women's basketball game of the year is certainly an extra benefit -- an extra benefit with a much higher value than some which have landed players on the bench for nine games and/or schools on probation. As noble as the cause might be, there's no difference between Louisville sending their men's team to New Orleans for the women's title game and sending them to the beach for a drunken weekend. The only way around it is if every Louisville student was provided tickets and transportation, and haha that ain't happening.
Problem #3: The NCAA then opened Pandora's Box to cover the PR damage.
Responding to the outcry, the NCAA stated this morning that they'd have been amenable to granting a waiver and allowing Kevin Ware and company to head to New Orleans after all. This was a reactionary move on the part of the NCAA, desperate to appear something other than callous. (It was also a huge, huge mistake, as it can only be rationalized by arguing that it enables the NCAA -- or, less cynically, NCAA women's basketball -- to profit from the appearance of the Louisville men's team in New Orleans... and god knows the last thing the NCAA really needs is to claim something didn't set a precedent because they were able to profit from it.) Louisville, in turn, responded by saying it was too late, as travel plans were already made and the kids couldn't turn around and get back to New Orleans in time.
Problem #4: It's actually Louisville that screwed this up.
Louisville's travel plans had to have already been set before they ever even talked to the NCAA about this, and it's hard to imagine that they brought this up before Sunday night -- otherwise, I'm sure we'd have heard something about it earlier than Pitino mentioning it in a press conference. Nobody bypasses a chance to report on the callousness of the NCAA. No, they knew they were going back to Louisville when they got to Atlanta, and there's no reason whatsoever why they wouldn't have already had their plans taken care of ahead of time because money. But there's a catch in all this which nobody's bothered to think about: Louisville knew a week ago that there was a chance that their men would win the national title and that their women would be playing for one the following day. I mean, they had to know, right? I knew. You know. Surely they knew.
Which brings up the million-dollar question. Why didn't Louisville address this possibility with the NCAA a week ago, and then leak the denial to drum up sympathy like any sensible organization would? Had they done so, maybe the NCAA decides to buckle and grant a waiver on Tuesday, and Louisville's got time to arrange to send the guys from Atlanta to New Orleans directly, and then home to Louisville. For that matter one has to ask, if the players were so gung-ho about supporting their distaff colleagues, why didn't they bring all this up themselves last week, thus setting those dominoes into motion?
But never mind all that. It's just easier to blame the NCAA for being the NCAA than spread around the responsibility, and god knows journalists love nothing more than an easy hook.