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Vacating wins is stupid

Michigan v Louisville

Louisville is college basketball’s national champion for 2013. That is a known fact. Everyone watched the games. Louisville won six in a row in the NCAA tournament, and all of them were nationally televised. Their “One Shining Moment” video is still on YouTube, along with many other highlights from the spring of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva.

The NCAA says otherwise. It’s said otherwise since June 2017, when its Committee on Infractions ruled that Louisville staffers had bought strippers and sex workers for players and recruits. The NCAA doesn’t love that.

The worst sentence for Louisville was already self-imposed: A postseason ban in 2016, when then-coach Rick Pitino had another contending team. The others were mostly minor: probation, four scholarship losses across four years, a five-ACC game suspension for Pitino, and the vacating of wins — a standard mechanism of NCAA justice that doesn’t mean anything beyond NCAA record books — that included the 2013 tournament.

The vacated wins are only in the news again now because Louisville’s never-gonna-happen appeal has now officially failed.

The NCAA takes away wins for all kinds of violations.

Louisville is the first basketball team to lose an NCAA-recognized national title to sanctions. But there have been big-time seasons wiped off the books before in many sports. John Calipari’s UMass had a Final Four run vacated in 1996 after the NCAA ruled center Marcus Camby had received gifts from agents. In football, USC lost its 2004 title, and the NCAA recently erased Notre Dame’s trip to the BCS Championship in 2012 over an academic issue.

The NCAA has vacated wins in cases of horrible crimes that had little to do with on-field competitive advantages (like Penn State’s sexual abuse scandal). It’s done the same in cases where it’s found programs to be breaking rules to make themselves better, like the Notre Dame and Ole Miss football programs recently.

But as a practical matter, the stripping of wins means almost nothing.

It’s a real horror for fans who care about Wikipedia tables ...

... or banners ...

... or NCAA record books, which are kept in PDFs that almost no one reads.

It’s not that big a deal to most people, least of all the players involved:

It might be a slight inconvenience for people who don’t like to argue about real champions. College basketball has a 68-team tournament and thus isn’t accustomed to widespread fighting about who actually won a given year’s title. But, folks, college football has done that for almost its entire history, and UCF’s doing it right now. Most college hoops fans are also college football fans, so needing to argue for a deserving champion isn’t some kind of new thing. Nobody is really in charge of any college sport, anyway.

Maybe vacating wins feels like karmic retribution for coaches and administrators who have done wrong. Louisville’s an easy target, given its recent firings of Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich amid an entirely separate scandal, that one involving corruption and the FBI. But their reputations aren’t any more tattered now than they would’ve been had the title not been vacated. Unless Louisville tries to recoup bonus money paid to Pitino for winning it all, how’s he even being punished?

The NCAA has some tools to really sting people it thinks did wrong. It can ban teams from tournaments and take away scholarship slots, making them weaker for years. It can slap show-cause penalties on the people in charge, making it almost impossible for them to find work in college sports. It can even ban teams from competing for years at a time.

Those punishments aren’t the same as taking a team’s wins away. The main difference is that all those other sanctions exist in the real world, not the NCAA’s revised reality.

Teams could just tell the NCAA to shove it, but they don’t.

Louisville isn’t doing that. No one does. The Cardinals are mad as hell, but their banner came down almost immediately upon losing their appeal. No team can tell the NCAA what to think, and it can’t control what goes on Wikipedia unless it’s deeply committed.

What’s the NCAA really going to do to the team that refuses to take down a banner or accept the vacating of wins? The organization considers “reckless indifference to the NCAA constitution and bylaws” to be a Level I violation, the most serious kind. It’s in the same tier as paying recruits or, for another example, getting them prostitutes.

There’s a chance that the NCAA wouldn’t do anything to a school that defied it and flaunted a vacated title forever. But even a slight risk of incurring a real punishment isn’t worth it, because the NCAA ignoring wins everyone knows you have definitely isn’t one.