ESPN gigs shouldn't be safety net for coaches who cheat | Sports | Indy Week

ESPN gigs shouldn't be safety net for coaches who cheat

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Bruce Pearl in 2009
  • Tennessee Journalist/Creative Commons
  • Bruce Pearl in 2009
You can't blame ESPN, a principal promoter and profiteer of college basketball, for wanting to hire studio hosts and game commentators who are knowledgeable, opinionated and bring strong personality to the table. Bruce Pearl, the former Tennessee coach who can often be found opposite former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg in the studio and on occasion in the color commentator's seat courtside, certainly fits that bill.

I have but two questions about this arrangement. First, why is ESPN providing a safety net to coaches who have been shown to violate major NCAA rules and to have lied to NCAA investigators?

Second, why does the NCAA allow one of its major broadcast partners to do this?

As Tennessee coach, Bruce Pearl effectively created a conspiracy to lie about a recruiting violation committed in the summer of 2008. The NCAA dished out a relatively stiff penalty: a three-year "show cause" penalty, in effect until 2014, which (by banning him from recruiting activities) essentially makes Pearl unemployable as a college head coach.

But it seems no one at ESPN thought this penalty should make Pearl unemployable by the network. ESPN is apparently not concerned with appearing to reward convicted cheaters with a cushy studio job and a way to keep their names and faces visible to potential future employers.

Perhaps we shouldn't expect much better from ESPN. But what of the NCAA? Tough penalties on coaches who cheat or lie is the best available deterrent to at least the most blatant forms of cheating. If your program commits a major violation while you are a head coach, you should face a multi-year ban, and if you are personally involved, a lifetime ban should be an available penalty, depending on the specific circumstance.

What doesn't cut it is issuing a three-year penalty, then allowing the penalized coach to pick up an ample check from a major broadcast partner. That's a twofold problem. First, it dampens the disincentive for cheating. Second, it gives individuals who have severely violated basic ethical standards a prominent voice in the discussion of college basketball—sending a clear message that the NCAA doesn't really take those standards very seriously.

Honest coaches who lose their jobs after a tough run or who are in between coaching gigs are worthy people to hear from during college basketball season. Coaches who have lied and are under an NCAA ban should stay out out of the public eye for at least the duration of that ban.

This is not a hard call, and would not be hard to implement. An NCAA that cared about something beyond revenue-maximization in its dealings with the TV networks could easily require that broadcast partners not hire as commentators coaches who have committed major violations or who are under punitive or probationary action from the NCAA itself.

As it is, the NCAA is sending a mixed message. Every time a Division I coach sees Pearl on TV, they can quiver in their boots and worry that if they get caught cheating, they will lose their job and be forced to get paid for talking about basketball on TV. The more consistent message to send is that if you get caught cheating and lying, you won't be heard from again anytime soon in any outlet with a formal or financial tie to the NCAA.

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