Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The players deserve better than this


"Those cheating Huskies," read a headline in a CBS Sports column. The New York Times opened its "Meet the Final Four" piece by discussing recruiting improprieties. It's been Topic A on ESPN for two weeks.

Maybe my lifelong fanhood for all things UConn should stop me from weighing in on this. To me, it doesn't change the fact the men's basketball team is being wronged.

The charges were treated like blockbuster news. Yahoo led its sports page with the headline: "UConn broke rules." Never mind that on the first day of journalism school you're taught not to convict people in the story; the NCAA decides who broke the rules, not a news outlet. This was different; from the beginning, the tales of recruiting misdeeds have been assumed to be true before the official probe even starts.

UConn fans are livid. They -- we -- are smart enough to know this kind of season doesn't come around all that often. After so many close calls and great teams that fell short, this is not a fan base that takes Final Fours for granted.

But instead of talking about basketball, everyone -- players, fans and coaches -- has been asked about improper phone calls or who paid for what hotel room. It's bad enough for those of us who do nothing but watch, but the players deserve none of this.

Two years ago, this same team couldn't get out of its own way; this year, they've been ranked No. 1 in the country. It's a remarkable story, and one that has been wholly overshadowed.

Even worse, the explosiveness of the charges is illusory. The story hinges mainly on what the coaches knew about the activities of a former team manager who was working to ingratiate himself with recruits. His activities alone are against the rules, but if the coaches knew nothing about it, they can't be held responsible. If they did know, that's a problem.

It is not, though, an earth-shaker. No players were paid off. No one altered anyone's test scores. Rules are rules, but there is an enormous difference between the way the alleged violations have been reported and what they entail. In no way are they important enough to overshadow the players' accomplishments.

There's a reason it's happened this way, and it's pretty simple. Coach Jim Calhoun can be a jerk, and a lot of reporters can't stand him. This is no secret -- a top state columnist wrote a piece not long ago laying it all out for everyone to see.

Being a jerk isn't against the rules. But it does carry a price. When something like this comes along, the reporters and columnists who shape the news not only don't put the story in proper perspective, they pounce.

There is not a single top program that hasn't been caught up in something at least as serious as the UConn allegations. (Anyone outraged by this story should save his righteousness for the NCAA itself.) But when a coach makes time to be buddies with the media -- not the local guys who cover the team day to day, but the national writers and broadcasters who drive the conversation and determine how long a story stays in the public eye -- everyone is just as happy to look the other way.

In UConn's case, we get weeks of phony outrage, as if the fulminating wasn't a thinly disguised excuse to take shots at a guy who makes their jobs tougher.

The people who pay the heaviest price are the ones who make it all possible; guys named Jeff, Stanley, Hasheem and the rest. They'll only get one shot at the Final Four, most of them. And though they've done nothing wrong, they're tarred as cheaters.

Some people blame Calhoun for that. Given the facts at hand, I blame the people who don't seem to realize their grievances are not the story. No one cares whether the coach is nice to you. But thanks for making a week with UConn in the Final Four more pain than pleasure. I wouldn't have thought that was possible.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 203-330-6233 or at

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