March 10, 2015; New York Times
Those of us who swim or work out at the local Y or send our kids to YMCA summer camps might never imagine that within the same facilities, schemes to subvert college basketball rules are being concocted and implemented. Last week, the big news was about the NCAA’s penalties levied against longtime University of Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim. Knowing that there was NCAA trouble in the offing, Syracuse had already voluntarily suspended itself from participating in the NCAA college basketball playoffs for one year, a relatively safe move because the college basketball power was in the midst of a down year and at best a “bubble team.”
Syracuse’s self-penalization didn’t do the trick. On Friday, the NCAA revealed its full report on Syracuse University sports, outlining the Orange’s serious violations of college sports rules over several years. The penalties included forfeiting games in which the team had used ineligible players, which meant vacating 108 games and knocking Boeheim from second to sixth in the list of all-time winningest college basketball coaches. The NCAA also suspended Boeheim from coaching nine games, cut 12 basketball scholarships from Syracuse over four years, and hit the school with various financial penalties that could add up to $1 million. Commentators such as ESPN’s Jay Bilas, a former player for Syracuse rival Duke, and former coach and sports personality Dick Vitale immediately said that the NCAA had gone overboard in its penalties against Boeheim in the school. Expect that sports talk radio will feast pro and con on the NCAA penalties and keep the airwaves and phone lines occupied for months.
The truly distinctive part of the story is the role that was played by the Oneida Family YMCA. Apparently, two men used the Y “as a haven where men’s basketball and football players could receive academic credit for phony internships, money for volunteer work, and car rides and fast-food meals,” according to Zach Schonbrun in the New York Times. Other benefits went to an assistant basketball coach getting a free gym membership, two trainers getting paid for “volunteering” at basketball clinics, and an administrative assistant getting $440 for his apartment rent.
Was the Y simply the totally innocent venue where college sports corrupters conducted their business, meeting perhaps in the locker rooms to exchange benefits? It seems otherwise. Schonbrun writes:
“According to the report, 21 checks were distributed to Syracuse athletes out of a checking account handled by Jeff Cornish, an Oneida native who was the youth sports coordinator at the YMCA from 1996 until 2006…Mr. Cornish had been hired by Hank Leo, the YMCA’s chief executive officer since 2000, who worked as a part-time tutor for Syracuse athletes five evenings a week from 1989 until 2007.”
Through Leo, the NCAA alleges, Cornish got to know Boeheim and the team, ingratiating himself with football and basketball players. The report charged that Cornish distributed with more than $8,300 to football and basketball players, while Leo concocted dubious internships and clinics.
Boeheim issued a statement that said he had trusted Cornish, who had been “thoroughly vetted by the office of athletic compliance before he was permitted to interact with our student-athletes.” Boeheim said, contrary to the NCAA report, that Cornish hadn’t had special access to Syracuse facilities.
Although Leo has denied the things that have been attributed to him in the NCAA report, if the report is accurate, the YMCA had an institutional role in that people trusted by and accredited to the Y were able to use the facility’s resources to implement the alleged violations of college sports rules. However, the Y is an incidental player in this drama. What is to blame is the university’s inadequate oversight—or unwillingness to do rigorous oversight—of what was happening with its basketball and football players. Part of the report deals with efforts by Syracuse to keep star athletes academically eligible. One notable example is Fab Melo, the star center who was a vital cog in Syracuse’s run in the NCAA tournament, who was kept eligible by jimmying his academics until he was finally removed from the team (and Syracuse then lost in the tournament to Ohio State in the Elite Eight).
The ultimate problem is in the system of so-called amateur athletics as carried out by colleges. The NPQ Newswire has previously covered the fraudulent efforts conducted at the University of North Carolina to give UNC athletes better grades in order to maintain their eligibility and the money flowing from boosters to athletes at the University of Miami. There’s something rotten in the kingdom of the NCAA. Sadly, in the big money game surrounding NCAA eligibility for schools like Syracuse, UNC, and Miami, in this case, according to NCAA investigators, the Oneida YMCA has become a scene for aiding and abetting the violations that have tarnished the reputation of the University of Syracuse.—Rick Cohen