The NCAA rulebook is clear on this matter. It says players on the Louisville men's basketball team would have received an extra benefit -- the kind the rest of the student body doesn't get -- by being flown Tuesday from the men's Final Four in Atlanta to New Orleans to watch the Louisville women play UConn in the national title game.
We get it. The rule on impermissible benefits is simple to understand. The rule says the men can't be flown for free from Atlanta to New Orleans.
But decency says: Yes they can.
The right thing to do says: Yes they can.
And here's where the NCAA goes wrong most often, even more often than it screws up the University of Miami investigation: It goes wrong most commonly when it chooses the rules over what's right.
Hiding behind its enormous rulebook, not letting Louisville fly its men to New Orleans to support the women as they pursued a rare, almost impossible double -- national championships in men's and women's basketball at the same school, in the same season -- is the most NCAA thing ever.
But that's what the NCAA did when Louisville asked for relief from that rule -- the NCAA said no. Sorry. Not in our rulebook. So Louisville sent its players home. By the time the NCAA realized something was bad wrong -- Oh, right, we're being stupid here -- it was hours before tipoff in New Orleans. It was too late. Louisville's men were already headed home.
But it's only one example of many. So many it would turn your stomach and bloat the Internet's bandwidth if they were all listed here. But these are a few examples, just to reinforce what you already know -- that what happened to Louisville was no isolated incident but rather a pattern of the bogus "leadership" the NCAA offers:
• The South Carolina football team was sanctioned once because Jerri Spurrier, wife of football coach Steve Spurrier, was sending Christmas cards to incoming freshmen who were still in high school but had signed an official letters of intent to play for the Gamecocks.
• Nebraska football is in the middle of a two-year probation rap because it provided to student-athletes books that were recommended -- but not assigned -- by professors. According to NCAA rules, a scholarship covers books that are required in class. But books that the professor merely recommends to enhance the learning process? Those are illegal, son. This wasn't just a violation, according to the NCAA, but a "major" violation.
• Boise State football was hit harder -- three years probation, nine lost scholarships -- because incoming freshmen found "impermissible" housing the summer before their first semester on the team. Freshmen who wanted to participate in voluntary offseason workouts were sleeping on couches or floors of current Boise State players. One was found to have committed a violation worth $2.34.
If Nebraska got two years for books and Boise State got three years and lost scholarships for couches, how hard would the NCAA hit Louisville for airfare? Louisville wasn't about to find out. Coach Rick Pitino flew there to represent the program, but before the NCAA came to its sense his players had already planned the trip home. Because those are the rules, and the NCAA has made it clear that -- at all times -- the rules must be followed or someone is going down.
Show me a leader who chooses the rules over what's right, and I'll show you a bad leader. I'm sure there are examples of times when the rules simply have to come first -- there are hypothetical or even real-world situations where the rule must come before what's right -- so do me a favor and don't dig up one of those examples and fling it in my face.
Because this wasn't one of those times.
The rule that says Louisville couldn't fly its men from Atlanta to New Orleans doesn't come before what's right. Never mind that the men were in Atlanta as part of the multi-billion-dollar enterprise that funds the NCAA. Or that the women were in New Orleans as part of the same, albeit much less lucrative, enterprise. You could spend hours on that irony alone, that the NCAA is more than happy to let the Louisville men spend weeks away from campus and charter jets and stay in luxury hotels and get free food and gifts so long as they're spending those weeks performing for the financial benefit of the NCAA.
This isn't about irony. This is about right, wrong, and those instances where the rulebook is aimed in the wrong direction.
One of these days, NCAA, you're going to have to figure this out.
Or one of these days, NCAA, you're simply not going to exist.