Are big-time programs — and coaches — treated differently when under NCAA investigation?

Louisville's Rick Pitino and North Carolina's Roy Williams are in charge of basketball programs under NCAA investigation.

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Every October I visit dozens of college basketball’s best teams, watching practices, chatting up players and talking with head coaches and their assistants about the state of their programs and their sport as a whole.

This month, one topic has been impossible to avoid: the scandal at the University of Louisville involving escorts who were allegedly paid to have sex with men’s basketball recruits and their fathers as well as current basketball players. The fact these allegations come from a book co-written by the madam herself and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and that they have been corroborated by one report gives them an enormous amount of heft in a sometimes-sordid world of college basketball, where allegations of coaching malpractice are often whispered, rarely shouted.

Every coach and player I’ve spoken to has weighed in with something between shock and disgust at these allegations, though most have said it’s completely plausible that head coach Rick Pitino had no idea what was transpiring at Billy Minardi Hall – and I believe that. Coaches’ shock and disgust extended to the recent instances of academic fraud in the SMU and the North Carolina basketball programs under Hall of Famers Larry Brown and Roy Williams, and so did the feeling that those coaches may have been caught wholly unawares by the corruption in their programs.

But what one well-respected coach at a top-10 program told me last week really jumped out:

“If Rick Pitino and Larry Brown are still coaches at the end of the year,” the coach told me, “the message the NCAA is sending schools is that it pays to cheat.”

It’s a big statement. It’s also a true statement: Larry Brown’s nine-game suspension and SMU’s one-year ban from the postseason are big punishments, but they are nowhere near the debilitating penalties it would take for the NCAA to convince coaches that cheating does not pay.

Larry Brown did not lose his job. And I can’t see a scenario where Pitino is ushered out of his spot at Louisville unless he decides to go on his own (or perhaps is pressured to do so by a university that needs to save face).

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If the NCAA gives Pitino a Bruce Pearl-esque show-cause penalty that effectively ends his career, I will print out this column and eat it. It simply will not happen. Ditto for Williams at North Carolina. Legends have a longer leash. Part of the reason the NCAA doesn’t kick out legends is because they earned that longer leash. But the bigger part is a simple question of dollars and cents: More than any sport in America, we tune in to college basketball to watch the coaches, and so the coaches are as important to the sport’s revenue stream as anyone.

It almost always does pay to cheat in college sports. Wins matter more than integrity. This isn’t exactly a revelation. As Jerry Tarkanian used to say, “Nine out of 10 schools are cheating. The other one is in last place.”

If you’re reading the tea leaves of the two ongoing investigations – Louisville and UNC – you’ll see that Louisville’s (and Pitino’s) defense seems to be pointing at one rogue employee, former director of basketball operations Andre McGee. And you’ll see that Williams’ name appeared exactly one time in the NCAA’s 59-page notice of allegations – as a footnote – and that he does not seem a target of the UNC investigation.

I know the NCAA now can charge coaches (as it did Larry Brown) with “lack of coach control,” which means ignorance of what is going on in a program – or an inability to prove a coach’s culpability – is no longer a valid excuse. But come on: Unless a cell phone video shows up with Pitino giving a bag of cash to a hooker, he’ll have culpable deniability. The NCAA will not drop the hammer on Louisville, which became a blueblood under Pitino, just like it won’t drop the hammer on UNC, a blueblood for as long as there has been bluebloods.

Cheating pays. We’ve learned this from roided-up baseball players who walked away with tens of millions of dollars, and from white-collar criminals whose sentences paled in comparison to those of small-time crack dealers.

You can blame it on a toothless NCAA, or on a college sports system that values the almighty dollar over platitudes of integrity, or on an American culture that values winning over all else.

I’ll call it something else: The fact that schools cheat – and that they get away with it – is a natural result of the odd marriage in America between big-money athletics and academics.

Amateur college sports are a socialistic system. Every player is “paid” the same amount; the one-and-done lottery pick gets the same scholarship as the role player at the end of the bench. By “paying” every scholarship athlete the same, big-money sports like football and men’s basketball artificially suppress the market for the elite players.

Yet clearly certain players are worth more than others. And so those market inefficiencies will be exploited – with a black market, i.e., with cheating. Like water always finding its way through cracks, it’s natural that money, or other improper benefits like escorts or free class credits, will always find its way to athletes in revenue sports.

Because all of this is an inherent part of the college sports system, the NCAA is never going to punish big-name coaches much beyond a stern slap on the wrist, a penalty that’s more symbolic than effective. The NCAA is never going to levy death penalty-type sanctions for a blueblood program or a blueblood coach.

Another thing I keep hearing from coaches when we discuss the Louisville escort scandal: If this happened at a lesser school, that school would be heading toward a death penalty.

Another thing I keep hearing from coaches when we discuss the Louisville escort scandal: If this happened at a lesser school, that school would be heading toward a death penalty.

To quote Tarkanian again: “The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky it’s going to give Cleveland State two more years probation.”

It’s easy to punish a school or a coach if that school or coach doesn’t matter to college sports’ bottom line.

It’s a lot tougher when it’s a blueblood.

And so the lesson of all these scandals rocking today’s college sports is this: It does pay to cheat, but only if you’re a huge success. Don’t blame the NCAA for that. It’s just the American way.

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.