LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - As a result of one of the most bizarre sports scandals ever, the University of Louisville finds itself at a defining moment in its history. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In all human endeavors, it's sometimes helpful to push the reset button for a new start – or, at least, a check of whether you're on the right track or have strayed from your core values.
Contrary to what some members of the sports media and public might think, colleges and universities do not exist to sponsor athletics teams. They are in the business of educating tomorrow's leaders in many fields – law, medicine, education, government, business, etc. A part of that educational process is teaching values, ethics and responsible social behavior.
For better or worse, sports teams have emerged as the most visible public-relations arm of many colleges and universities. Mention Notre Dame or Alabama to most casual observers, and they'll immediately think of football. At Kentucky, Duke and Louisville, it's the same with men's basketball.
But there's a double-edged sword involved with letting a sports team be your main PR vehicle. When the team is winning and things are going well, it generates tons of goodwill, student applications, alumni support and donor money. But when a scandal hits, it can have a devastating negative impact in all those same areas.
That's what UofL is facing now.
On Tuesday, ESPN, arguably the most powerful forum in American sports, devoted much of the day to repeatedly showing an "Outside The Lines" investigative report that addressed the allegations regarding UofL basketball made by a self-confessed prostitute named Katina Powell.
In a book published this month, she claims that Andre McGee, UofL's former director of basketball operations, paid her to put on 22 sex parties for players and recruits from 2010-14. Most of the alleged parties were held on campus at Billy Minardi Hall, the dorm where most of the basketball players lived.
Powell gave ESPN reporters access to her journals and phone records, and the network verified some of the material. The reporters also interviewed five players who attended the parties and essentially verified Powell's allegations. Perhaps most damning of all, ESPN documented a "party" for a recruit and his guardian that took place three months after McGee had left to take a job at Missouri-Kansas City. The next day, McGee wired Powell $200.
So who from Louisville called McGee in Kansas City to arrange that party? That's one of the many questions investigators from UofL, the NCAA and local law enforcement would like to ask McGee, who has dropped out of sight. He is being represented by Scott Cox, a respected criminal defense attorney who represented ex-UofL player Chris Jones when Jones was exonerated on a rape charge near the end of last season.
Pitino has repeatedly denied any knowledge of the parties, which one player described to ESPN as "like being in a strip club." But whether he did or didn't, he looks bad either way. It also doesn't much matter, now that the NCAA has adopted a rule stipulating that a head coach no longer can claim ignorance as a defense. All the NCAA needs to penalize UofL is evidence that prostitutes gained admittance to the dorm where the players lived.
The three men who have the most to lose are UofL President James Ramsey, Vice-President for Athletics Tom Jurich and Pitino. All three are extremely likeable and competent individuals who share the same fan base to a point. Each also has an individual support group that is intensely loyal and protective. When push comes to shove, it will be interesting to see what positions those individual support groups stake out.
Beyond petty internal politics, however, the time has come for everyone who has a vested interest in UofL's health and well-being -- students, faculty, alumni, fans, donors and the media -– to step back, put aside egos and personal loyalties and advocate doing what's best for the school. To figure out exactly what that is, the first step is to agree that no individual, no matter how powerful or successful, is more important than the university and its core values.
Throughout his tenure as president, Ramsey has deferred to Jurich in all athletics matters. He supported Jurich's decision to keep Pitino, without punishment, after the Karen Sypher scandal. He supported Jurich's decision to give football coach Bobby Petrino another chance despite the sex scandal that got him fired at Arkansas. He supported Jurich's decision to keep football recruiter Clint Hurtt even after he was tainted by his involvement in the recruiting sex scandal at Miami.
But can he support Jurich again in the current scandal, by far the ugliest one yet? For that matter, can Jurich continue to back Pitino, as he did again Tuesday in a statement, especially since he has to know that NCAA sanctions are inevitable? If he does, Jurich runs the risk of asking too much of a fan base that has generally accepted his controversial personnel decisions because of their enormous faith in his judgment and promise to do the right thing, no matter what the consequences.
As for Pitino, he has said that he won't resign because it would be "cowardly." That's typical of a highly competitive person who has spent his entire life in the public arena. But it's also true that, in some cases, the most courageous thing to do is step aside for the greater good. There can be enormous honor in making that kind of sacrifice.
Already national commentators have lumped together all of Jurich's controversial personnel decisions and concluded that UofL is guilty of condoning sexual misconduct for the sake of winning. Much as people close to the program may want to dismiss this as unfair and fuzzy thinking, that perception will linger as long as the status quo is preserved. That's more fact than opinion. It's just the way things work these days.
The mess seems to be inexorably headed toward the judicial system. Expect to read in the coming days that McGee and/or Powell are trying to plea bargain with investigators and prosecutors. For everybody truly interested in getting all the facts, it must be noted that the judicial system has tools -– such as the power of subpoena –- that don't belong to the NCAA or UofL. And lying under oath is a good way to get tossed in jail for perjury.
So what's best for UofL? Not just the athletics department, but for the entire university? There are some aspects of this slowly developing story that are beyond the school's control. But the UofL needs to figure out what it can control and begin to move pro-actively to rebuild its tarnished image. More and more, it looks as if maintaining the status quo is not a reasonable option.
More than anything, a university should stand for integrity in all matters. So it's essential for everyone who loves UofL to put the university above personalities and do what's best for its long-term health and welfare, no matter how much it may hurt in the short term.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes occasional columns to WAVE3.com.