Monday, May 08, 2006

Sometimes, the World Really Is Conspiring against You

When Alabama was smacked by the NCAA in 2001 for buying Albert Means, I wrote a column for criticizing the NCAA for punishing Bama excessively and then acting as if the punishments could have been more severe. What I wanted to add to the column, but chose not to for fear of receiving hundreds of "burn in hell, yellow journalist!" e-mails, was that the NCAA's actions were going to feed the paranoia complex that Bama fans have about the rest of the college football universe conspiring against them. My thinking was that Bama fans need to recognize that their school needed to control its boosters and if their fan base externalized Bama's culpability by blaming the NCAA instead of Logan Young and a lax coaching staff, then that reckoning would be less likely.

Unfortunately, subsequent events have only fed the John Birch mentality of many Bama fans, to the point that even a disinterested observer like me - a person with bedrock beliefs that: (1) conspiracies are highly unlikely; (2) Oswald killed Kennedy; and (3) there was no reason for Phil Fulmer, Tennessee, the SEC, or the NCAA to keep Bama down because Bama isn't that great a program when it doesn't have the best coach of the Post-War era stalking the sidelines - is starting to wonder whether there were forces out to get the Tide.

He wouldn't have put up with this Communist witch hunt of Crimson Tide football.

On the heels of the disclosures that the NCAA relied on secret witnesses, Phil Fulmer was prominently involved in the investigation, and Roy Kramer knew that Means was up for sale and warned other programs, but didn't warn Bama, the latest news is that David Swank, the chairman of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions that smacked Bama, has regrets about the process. Specifically, he admits that certain charges against a Bama booster were misclassified and that the NCAA should not have relied upon Tom Culpepper's testimony. If this were a criminal case, the verdict against the Tide would likely be thrown out, assuming that the NCAA relied upon Culpepper's testimony in part, as such reliance would be more than "harmless error."

On the other hand, Swank might have testified in his deposition that Culpepper's testimony was incidental and that his real regret is that the NCAA relied on it when it had eyewitness testimony from the key players (notably, Milton Kirk) that Young did in fact pay for Means. Lynn Lang ultimately pled guilty to receiving the payments and Logan Young was convicted of making them (before he was bludgeoned, er, stumbled to death), so the NCAA was substantively correct in its primary allegation against Bama. However, procedurally speaking, the NCAA's investigation left a LOT to be desired, which indicates either sloppiness or animus. The former is a bad sign for any future investigations. The latter would really chafe me if I were a Bama fan.

One other thought: the intensity with which Bama fans support their program (the primary reason why Alabama football is so interesting to me and why I've read more books about Bama football than any other program, including that of my alma mater) is a factor in both the fact that the NCAA had to investigate Bama in the first place (you have to have some pretty crazy fans to pay $250,000 for a defensive tackle) and the fact that the skeletons in the NCAA's closet have been revealed. There are precious few sports teams in the world that have fans so committed that they'll drag a ruling body into court in numerous lawsuits challenging the results of one investigation. In other words, it might not be that the NCAA was out to get Bama, but rather that the NCAA is haphazard with their investigations and the scrutiny applied to the investigation of Alabama football finally brought that sloppiness to light. (If Jerry Tarkanian is a reader, he's probably grinning from ear to ear right now.)

Incidentally, if you want more evidence that Tide fans have a modicum of interest in scrutinizing the NCAA's investigation, here are the pleadings from the Ronnie Cottrell case and here is a full compendium of resources on the investigation itself, courtesy of the Tuscaloosa News.

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