RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
College basketball is heading into March Madness. But madness doesn't just describe the monthlong frenzy of competition ahead. It also describes the way schools and the NCAA are dealing with fraud and scandals in college athletics. And our sports commentator Mike Pesca has some thoughts.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: It's funny. It's so funny. I could have sworn that I was there when Louisville won the 2013 college basketball championship. Records show that I filed a report for this network, that I stuck a microphone in the face of exultant Louisville players and stood with depressed University of Michigan fans as confetti rained down.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
PESCA: They're not booing. They're saying Louisville.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Louisville.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Booing).
PESCA: Actually, that guy was booing - a Michigan fan who, by the second half, sensed the game slipping away.
The Louisville players think it happened. The Louisville fans thought it happened. But the NCAA says the game never happened. That's because they vacated the championship. Vacated is the term for when the NCAA retroactively punishes a program that transgressed. The banners come down. The record book is amended.
The NCAA erased Louisville's victory because of a sex scandal. A school official tried to induce high school players to attend Louisville by arranging striptease parties and hiring prostitutes. Now, the FBI has been investigating other schools, not for sex parties but for regular old bribery. And a few months ago, federal officials brought charges against a bunch of assistant coaches from powerhouse schools like Arizona, USC and Oklahoma State. More recently, ESPN and Yahoo Sports reported that agents had paid or loaned money to at least two dozen players across a swath of high-profile colleges.
All of this violates NCAA rules about amateurism. Oh, yeah - it's also bribery, which is a federal crime. It seems like those latest revelations might shake the NCAA to its core. Nope. None of the programs named have suspended their head coaches. All of the players who were named who were playing before the revelations are still playing. But after the fact, the NCAA can always vacate some wins.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PESCA: This just in - dateline Hastings. The victory of William the Conqueror has been vacated. Impermissible arrows to the eye of King Harold II have been cited. Back to our regular program.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PESCA: The NCAA, which is the governing body of college athletics, is paid about a billion dollars a year for the right to broadcast college basketball tournament games. And if all of the accused teams were to be suspended - and we're talking about almost half of the top 25 - it wouldn't be much of a tournament at all. Luckily for the NCAA, they have this punishment, vacating wins, in their back pocket - or wherever one keeps a magic wand. The NCAA's billion-dollar business is based on an antiquated idea of sports amateurism. The players should only be paid in college tuition, whereas the fruits of their labor is priced at actual dollars by the TV networks that pay the NCAA. College basketball has little incentive to change 'cause no matter what rules get broken, college basketball still gets to play the games, market the madness, make the money and then, a few years later, engineer an impossible fiction that absolves them of immorality at no actual cost.
(SOUNDBITE OF TORTOISE'S "SHAKE HANDS WITH DANGER")
MARTIN: Mike Pesca is the host of Slate's daily podcast "The Gist." He's also the editor of the forthcoming book "Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs In Sports History." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.