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The NCAA’s System Is in Shambles. Its Response? Keep Vacating Wins.

The organization’s entire business model is based on ignoring reality. But the pseudo-erasure of team history matters less today than ever before.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

By the time the FBI investigation into the college basketball recruiting black market is finished, the NCAA could end up vacating a lot of wins. The first names of players allegedly involved in the case were leaked on Friday, and the documents and bank records included in a Yahoo Sports report go back years. If they are accurate, former NBA agent Andy Miller and his agency, ASM Sports, were paying at least 25 current and former players on 20 different Division I men’s basketball programs.

The case will take years to unfold fully, but it’s already easy to see one direction it will go. The NCAA will be taking down banners and writing names out of record books. It can’t punish players who are in the NBA beyond pretending their college careers never happened. It’s nothing new for the organization. Its entire business model is based on ignoring reality.

The NCAA has a long history of stripping schools of wins. The latest case involved Louisville, which was forced to vacate its 2013 national championship after the NCAA deemed a former director of basketball operations had “committed serious violations by arranging striptease dances and sex acts for prospects, student-athletes, and others.” Those Cardinals joined the Fab Five at Michigan and Pete Carroll’s football teams at USC in having their accomplishments sent down the official memory hole. And these are just the most famous examples. There have been 162 Division I football teams and 272 basketball teams that have vacated wins. It’s a legal fiction designed to keep a deeply flawed system intact.

Everything Chris Webber, Reggie Bush, and Russ Smith did in college still happened. The internet has made it easier than ever for us to remember. It takes five seconds to look up their games on YouTube and check out their stats. Just take the clips below.

Bush’s up-and-down NFL career makes it easy to forget just how incredible he was at USC:

Smith’s style of play never had much of a chance in the NBA, but it sure was fun to watch him at Louisville:

And who could ever forget this? Webber’s botched timeout is one of the most iconic plays in the past 30 years of sports:

Not putting these players’ respective teams in the official NCAA records says more about the latter than the former. They are conspicuous by their absence. It’s the college sports equivalent of Pete Rose being banned from the Hall of Fame.

Records are just ways we write our memories down on paper. A title run in any sport is an experience that brings together a community for a magical couple of months. The fans watch the games, the players compete in them, and everyone connected with the school experiences the joy of winning. The memories last a lifetime. None of that goes away just because of an NCAA decision years after the fact.

The NCAA is an unelected bureaucracy, comprised of representatives from its member institutions, that makes billions of dollars to serve as a glorified event planner. It isn’t a governmental organization, nor does it have subpoena power. Organizing games doesn’t give it moral authority over the people who play in them. The NCAA’s only actual power comes from its ability to dock scholarships and bar teams from competing in postseason tournaments.

This, of course, is why this FBI investigation that threatens to encompass all of college basketball exists in the first place. The organization punishes teams in the past because it’s almost impossible for the NCAA to enforce its rules on amateurism in the present.

There’s no surefire way to prevent elite basketball recruits from getting paid. The best players are viewed as valuable commodities by the time they’re in middle school. That’s when they start to distinguish themselves from the other kids in their age group. The shoe companies want to develop relationships with potential stars as soon as possible. In fact, one longtime NBA executive told me that some of the best intel he gets on prospects comes from shoe company representatives. They spend years getting to know the kids, their games, and their families before NBA scouts even start evaluating.

Wishing away young players’ market value doesn’t change the fact it exists. Luka Doncic, an 18-year-old Slovenian who is a projected top-three pick in this year’s NBA draft, signed his first pro contract when he was 13. A basketball prodigy can make money playing the sport at an early age, whether he grows up in Europe or the United States. And asking anyone to turn down potentially life-changing amounts of money in order to uphold an abstract set of 19th-century principles becomes all the more ridiculous.

In some cases, the entire process happens in plain sight without the NCAA being able to do anything about it. Take Missouri this season, for example. Last March, Mizzou gave Michael Porter Sr., the father of Michael Porter Jr.—who should be a lottery pick in the 2018 NBA draft—a three-year contract for $1.13 million to be an assistant coach for the Tigers. Porter Sr. had previously worked at Washington, where his son was committed to play before head coach Lorenzo Romar was fired. Once the father was hired at Missouri, the son changed his commitment. The NCAA can’t tell the family member of a star athlete where they can work or how much money they can make.

The current FBI investigation barely scratches the surface of the issue. A private organization can do only so much to prevent people who the free market values from making money. Federal agents can spend thousands of hours wiretapping the phone lines of agents and coaches just to get a glimpse of the complex ecosystem that connects buyers and sellers. The NCAA, meanwhile, likely won’t even be able to see the ongoing results of the probe in advance. It will have to learn of the FBI’s finding when everyone else does. If past behavior is any indication, it will pin the blame on bad apples and avoid touching systemic issues.

The entire structure of college sports is an exercise in make-believe. The NCAA pretends to enforce impractical rules with no connection to the way the world works, and when schools happen to get caught breaking those rules, everyone pretends that vacating their wins and titles means something. Stripping championships after the fact is a feeble attempt at rewriting history by an organization that spends most of its time trying to justify its existence.