Louisville, Florent Malouda and the Impact of Retroactive Penalties

About a week before my senior year of college, my cross country teammates and I were assembled in a collection of box seats high above the Duke football stadium for our annual talk about NCAA compliance. Despite our fly speck status on the school’s athletic map, the talk actually had particular relevance to us. During the summers, occasionally, college runners will enter road races. These road races have prize money. So if a college runner were to win the race, which happens, accepting the money could jeopardize his amateur status and, by extension, his eligibility.

After beginning his talk with this hypothetical, the school’s athletic director asked us to sign a boilerplate statement confirming that we had not received any compensation for our athletic talents (meager as they were). To emphasize his point, he added that Duke had an athlete in “another sport” who had signed the pledge two years earlier even though he had received money. We all knew that the AD meant Corey Maggette.

In 1999, after a successful freshman basketball season, Maggette left Duke for the NBA. The next summer, reports surfaced alleging that, while in high school, he took money from his AAU coach, the absurdly-named Myron Piggie. (This story was so well-known to people who followed college basketball that my friend joked that the AD should have said “we’ll call this athlete ‘Corey M.’ No, that’s too obvious. ‘C. Maggette’.”) Even in the NCAA’s world, Mr. Piggie’s contribution would have had little lasting impact on Duke had it not been for one thing: the basketball team, with Maggette on it, had been the NCAA runner-up the previous season. Therefore, the school could have to forfeit all of those games and, presumably, its runner-up finish.

This would mean what, exactly? Duke would probably have to give back its trophy and tournament revenue. And its name would be expunged from the official record books. But what else could the NCAA do? Would Duke players have to give back their Final Four rings? Would any video from the games have to be destroyed? In short, how does the NCAA eliminate something that already happened?

The 1999 Duke team is not the only one dogged by the retroactive forfeit issue. Technically, Kentucky coach John Calipari had not been to the Final Four until 2011, even though witnesses exist who saw him coaching UMass in the 1996 edition and Memphis in 2008. Both of these teams featured ineligible players. Michigan has removed the banners commemorating the back-to-back championship game appearances by its Fab Five. Still, those games were real enough that the players remember them and ESPN gave them significant play in its “30 For 30” documentary on the team.

Nor have retroactive penalties been limited to college basketball. USC’s Reggie Bush is no longer the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner. He took money from an agent during that season, which obviously falls below the high moral standard set by previous Heisman winners at Tailback U.

This brings us to two recent instances of retroactive punishment: Louisville and Florent Malouda. Last month, the NCAA clobbered Louisville’s basketball program with severe penalties for using strippers and prostitutes to lure recruits. Among the penalties, the NCAA instructed Louisville to vacate all wins from its 2012–2013 National Championship season. Effectively, this would make the Cardinals the first men’s basketball team to be stripped (no pun intended) of a national title. Malouda’s situation is even more recent. Last night, the ex-Chelsea soccer star played for French Guiana in its CONCACAF Gold Cup game against Honduras. This violates FIFA rules because the 37-year-old Malouda was tied to France, having played in 80 games and a World Cup Final for its national team. For its part, French Guiana knew ahead of time that the official score of the Honduras game would be a 3–0 forfeit. It played nonetheless. The result on the field was 0–0, which actually says more about Honduras than French Guiana. Still, Honduras will get 3 points for a win, rather than 1 for a draw. This could influence the group standings, pushing Honduras into the knockout round and leaving a more deserving team out.

All this leads to the ultimate question: what does retroactive punishment accomplish? Sure. The violator loses the official achievement. But what is that worth? Or put another way, how much does official recognition matter to the achievement itself? After all, Heisman or no Heisman, Reggie Bush really was the best college football player of 2005. When his head hits the pillow each night, he can rest knowing that. On the other side, does anyone really believe that the players on the 2013 Michigan basketball team (which lost to Louisville in the Final) shed tears of joy when notice of the NCAA vacating Louisville’s title ran across their phones? Of course not. Louisville was the best team — record book or no record book.

At the same time, I don’t know what alternative sports governing bodies have. If a athlete or team breaks a rule, and it is not uncovered until after the competition, shouldn’t the governing body still enforce the rule? Maybe the solution is to avoid vacating wins when rules have no bearing on the competition. When Louisville took the floor against Michigan in the 2013 Final, the stripper scandal gave them no direct advantage. Contrast this with, say, Ben Johnson running in the 1988 Olympic 100 meter final pumped with so many steroids that his eyes were yellow. When the International Olympic Committee stripped Johnson’s gold medal, it seemed more like recognition that Johnson was not, in fact, the best sprinter in the world.

I realize that this standard would only discourage poorly-concealed rule-breaking. But there are other punishments that could have more teeth, such as larger-than-normal fines. And in a world of imperfect options, some other punishment might be the best choice.

Random Observations Unleashed

  1. Let me take this opportunity to acknowledge that the PED issue, especially in regard to the 1988 Olympic Final, is complicated. Other sprinters in the race tested positive for drugs at different points in their careers. So maybe Ben Johnson did compete and win on an level playing field. That said, I am not getting into that debate. This post is philosophical enough already.
  2. My friend’s joke about “Corey M.” and “C. Maggette” was a reference to this moment from the Simpsons.
  3. In addition to Maggette, Piggie also paid former NBA players Kareem Rush and Korleone Young, and Rush’s brother, former UCLA star JaRon Rush. The money involved was not excessive: A total of $17,000 to JaRon Rush, $14,000 to Young, $2300 to Kareem Rush and $2000 to Maggette. Still, in 2001, Piggie pled guilty to defrauding four universities by compromising these players’ amateur status. He served 37 months in federal prison.
  4. While Piggie has an eventful past (including convictions for violent crime and dealing crack), through today’s lens, it seems he was overly vilified. With the public having two more decades to absorb the faulty logic of the NCAA’s amateurism model, sending a man to prison for giving players a modest sum, when everyone but them is making supposedly legitimate money off the system, comes across as a touch laughable.
  5. It should be noted that Reggie Bush forfeited his Heisman Trophy. But this was after the NCAA ordered USC to disassociate itself from Bush and USC complied by, among other actions, returning its copy of Bush’s trophy.
  6. French Guiana, where Malouda was born, is not an independent country or a member of FIFA. This means that, theoretically, Malouda would have been eligible to compete in non-FIFA events, like the Gold Cup. But CONCACAF conducts the Gold Cup under FIFA eligibility rules, which bar Malouda from playing for any team other than France.