Slow down, sports mob: Let’s get all the facts before we fire Rick Pitino
The mob has spoken.
And the mob wants blood.
On Tuesday morning, ESPN aired an interview with madam Katina Powell and also published a story that said five former University of Louisville basketball players and recruits had confirmed allegations in her book that she had arranged parties at an on-campus dorm for basketball players with strippers and, in many cases, sex.
The reports hadn’t even been fully digested when the mob decided that coach Rick Pitino must be gone.
Now. Right now.
A respected columnist for a Louisville television station wrote a powerful piece asking for Pitino’s head on a platter. The headline was, “This is one mess Pitino can’t fix.” A USA Today columnist called for Pitino’s job: “If something goes wrong on a coach’s watch, he or she has to pay the price.” Dan Dakich said on ESPN Radio that he would have fired Pitino immediately and called the mess “a complete embarrassment.”
On FS1, Colin Cowherd tore into Pitino in his opening monologue Tuesday (watch video above): “You have got to fire Rick Pitino this morning.”
But why did the mob pick Tuesday? Why did the mob wait more than two weeks after Powell’s book was published? Why did it take a story that, while extraordinarily well-reported and with eyebrow-raising details that corroborated the allegations in Powell’s book, pretty much just confirmed what was already out there?
It’s because of the mob mentality that’s all too common in America, the groupthink that often throws caution into the wind and gets a perverse glee in being the first person to call for someone’s job. It’s unseemly, that snark that comes out of us, that unbridled joy so many take in seeing a powerful person’s fall from grace.
I’ll add one more voice to the cacophony and say this: Let’s pump the brakes a little bit.
Let me be clear: The reports of what allegedly happened at Billy Minardi Hall are awful. Powell alleges that over a period of four years, former Louisville director of basketball operations Andre McGee paid more than $10,000 for 22 strip shows (some of which led to “side deals,” i.e., sex) for former Louisville players, recruits and recruits’ fathers. Multiple reports have confirmed the gist of these allegations.
It’s a black eye not just for Louisville but for all of college sports. Pitino will certainly be punished for what happened under his watch.
But the lust with which so many are calling for Pitino’s job leaves out the most important ingredient:
Did he know, or didn’t he?
In 2015, we love to jump to big conclusions, even without the facts. The facts as they stand are that we don’t know whether Pitino knew. We don’t know whether he orchestrated the whole alleged prostitutes-in-the-dorm thing. We don’t know whether he sorta kinda knew about it, but turned a blind eye. We don’t know whether it was one rogue employee pulling this all off, which is what Pitino alleges, and everyone else was in the dark.
This is a Hall of Famer. I want a smoking gun.
Did he know? My guess is yes. Rick Pitino is a control freak. He knows everything. One high-major head coach told me he can’t imagine something like this going on for four years and the coach not knowing about it.
Of course, my guess — and your guess — doesn’t mean a damn thing. The mob may want blood, but the accused deserves a fair trial.
Several other high-major head coaches told me that it’s absolutely plausible Pitino didn’t know. A lot goes on in programs, good and bad, that head coaches don’t know about. And then, add in the question of motive — Why would Pitino risk everything on something so careless? Why would a national power like Louisville even need this scheme? Would something like this even lure recruits? — and the waters get muddied. Travis Ford, the Oklahoma State head coach who played for Pitino at Kentucky, told me he is 100-percent certain that Pitino had no idea of what was going on.
That’s an overstatement, of course. There’s no way Ford knows. It’s an overstatement made of loyalty, while the overstatement of saying Pitino must have known is made out of a jaded world view that assumes the worst in people.
Plenty have said it doesn’t matter whether Pitino knew or didn’t know. The buck stopped there.
I couldn’t disagree more. Everything hinges on whether he knew.
There’s a big difference between knowing and encouraging this behavior — which in my eyes would be a Class A, collegiate athletics felony — and having a single rogue employee or building a culture that allowed such behavior to happen. It’s like the difference between a parent whose unstable home environment led a 12-year-old to using drugs and a parent who passed the joint to his 12-year-old.
Though those lesser sins are still huge mistakes and would almost certainly fall under the NCAA catch-all charge of lack of coach and institutional control, they fall far short of a coach who orchestrated this scheme. If Pitino knew nothing, he’d still be looking at a significant penalty. If he knew everything, it would be the death penalty for his career.
But the court of public opinion has already convicted Pitino as the man who knew everything.
Remember, though, that it wasn’t that long ago that the court of public opinion had tried, convicted, then tarred and feathered another highly successful Division I coach.
I’m talking about former Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler, who was forced to resign in a rape scandal involving three of his players. It turned out those allegations were a fraud in what the state attorney general called a “tragic rush to accuse.” That was a completely different situation, but it drew the same mob mentality.
If it turns out Rick Pitino did have direct knowledge of the alleged strippers and hookers who had apparently turned Billy Minardi Hall into a den of iniquity — and if we have proof instead of just suppositions — then fire his ass. Absolutely, 100 percent fire his ass.
But if it turns out he really didn’t know, how unseemly, undignified and unfair would our current lust for punishment seem in retrospect?