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Nardone: Time to stop letting indigent Rick Pitino receive a free pass

Richard C. Lewis

Rick Pitino probably didn’t know that an escort service was running roughshod through his program. After all, one shouldn’t very literally have to tell his assistant coaches that hookers are a no-no when it comes to prospects or current players. That should be, presumably, understood.

Does that make him less culpable? To a degree; yes. Yet it does not make the context of who Pitino is magically disappear, nor should this entire scandal be dusted under the rug because he happens to be a Hall of Fame coach.

As it often is, this discussion needs a far more complex approach, and it is the sort of voyage we are unlikely to take thanks to the way the sport has been covered for decades.

Pitino entered his press conference on Thursday, his first appearance after the NCAA threw down the hammer, and he was in typical Slick Rick form. He denied accountability and played ignorant to what happened, all while hurling out statements that countered the message he was attempting to send.

“I didn’t fail to monitor,” the coach said. “I failed in trusting someone.”

What an odd spin by a man who should probably just eat the loss and move on. How could one have monitored as much as he said he did — “I over-monitor” — but not be accountable for things happening under his watch? Could it just have been a poor use of verbiage? Sure. But this is the same Rick Pitino who has for years refused to be as publicly accountable of his actions — or just general missteps — as he would hold his own players to.

February 1, 2016: Louisville Cardinals guard Damion Lee (0) and guard Trey Lewis (3) during the game against The Louisville Cardinals and North Carolina Tar Heels at The KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, KY. Louisville defeated North Carolina 71-65. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire).

Damion Lee (0) and guard Trey Lewis (3). Remember them? (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire).

We are less than a year removed from the entire university attempting to throw its then current roster under the bus in a best-for-business move. Yet, there was Pitino on Thursday, not wanting any part of a game of morals in sports from which he has so greatly benefited, refusing to acknowledge even the slightest role in the sport’s biggest scandal last season.

It has been some time since the scandal first made waves in the college basketball community. By and large, many people have grown sick of hearing about it. In fact, had Pitino simply gone to the presser, taken the loss, and explained that he did not know, but would attempt to do better monitoring his program moving forward, there would be very little to discuss outside of what punishment awaits him.

Still, the coach chose defiance, a regular stance by many of the stars (coaches) of the sport. We can look at example after example of men presumed to be of high moral standing, then being knocked down several steps after we learned of their sometimes horrific, but more often general, flaws. Yet, some stand firm in their indignation no matter how much of a role they may have played in any given situation.

(The fact coaches believe they can do that, mind you, is as much our fault as it their own lack of self-awareness. More on that a little later…)

Unfortunately, given the context of Pitino in his entirety, including other issues at other universities, this legendary basketball coach who has been put on a pedestal for decades should now be defined in more complex terms. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, in an environment in which these beloved leaders of men are often held to a lower standard than the unpaid labor they oversee.

This can be acknowledged: We now know more of Pitino the man. He, like all people, happens to be flawed, a relatively benign characteristic, yet something that tends to be historically ignored by those who romanticize coaches to the point of excess.

To put that more bluntly: We should be ashamed of ourselves if we let the Al Pacino lookalike get a free pass (yet again) merely because he is good at his job.

We do no such things for CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. If the main person in charge of Company-X did something generally deemed immoral or unethical, indirectly or otherwise, the buck would stop with that person. Somehow, in the land of sports, this never happens. Instead, the blame game is played, accountability is a ball rolling down a hill, landing on whoever is furthest removed from the people in power.

I’m not advocating for Pitino to lose his job, either. Let’s be crystal clear about that. We just need to stop pretending that these coaches, these normal people who are good at figuring out a sport (nothing else, nothing more), are not worth the worship we so blindly give to them.

Rick Pitino (Phot: John Sommers/Icon Sportswire)

Rick Pitino (Phot: John Sommers/Icon Sportswire)

It doesn’t help Pitino that the perception of Louisville should be that of a university valuing the dollar over everything else. A school which employs one scandal-ridden coach has another, Bobby Petrino, overseeing its college football program. Whether that perception is important, it also tells the overall story that has continued for some time in college sports — which is something not limited to Louisville itself: Everyone’s ethical and moral soap-box beliefs can be bought for a price.

Winning gives coaches the benefit of the doubt. Being a great enough coach will have universities and fans turning a blind eye to any inappropriate behavior. The same missteps that would have a student-athlete crushed/expelled/suspended are explained away in complicated verbal math for successful coaches. College revenue sports remove the idea that standards need to apply to the people in charge.

It makes sense, too — large dollar amounts are at stake. Even sane people would be slightly less altruistic in their moral structures if it benefits their pocketbooks to forgive someone who is wayward but transcendent in talent.

Funny enough, this has absolutely nothing to do with Rick Pitino the person. The greatest ongoing game of charades in sports is this idea that “good people” lead to winning, which feeds the notion that “bad people” shouldn’t be involved in them.

Sports, specifically ones with big money involved, are driven by the talent of the participant. If Pitino knew about wrongdoings at Louisville or not is something that might change how we view him as a person, but it shouldn’t change how we view him as a basketball coach.

It is something we need to do better. We need to remove character traits — good, bad, leader, etc. — from success or the lack thereof. The two are not mutually exclusive. Ethical and unethical people both win. Ethical qualities or moral measurements don’t determine how much any person wins or loses.

That said, letting Pitino completely slide at this point just seems silly.

We can acknowledge that he has a rather limited weight of culpability for this specific scandal, while still confronting a coach and a university that tend to value themselves more than the athletes they claim to cherish and those ethical boundaries we swear we believe are important in sports… but are not.

Diatribes are one thing, and maybe we discuss public sports figures far too often in this context. Admittedly, it is something I find hard to balance as a writer. At the same time, however, if we are going to continue to spin and weave coaches’ stories into heroic tales in a land where they make substantial profits off sometimes downtrodden and often undervalued athletes, harsh words against them are fair game.

If nothing else, Pitino needs to realize he should be held to a higher standard than the athlete, even if he is actually not, and attempt to be better, though there’s no reason for him to try to do so in earnest — he’s been significantly rewarded for being the person he has been, while not having to be humbled all that often.

March 1, 2016: Louisville Cardinals fans during the 2nd half of the NCAA basketball game between the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the Rick Pitino-coached Louisville Cardinals at the KFC Yum Center in Louisville, KY. Louisville defeated Georgia Tech 56-53. (Photo by David Blair/Icon Sportswire)

March 1, 2016: Louisville Cardinals fans during the 2nd half of the NCAA basketball game between the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the Rick Pitino-coached Louisville Cardinals at the KFC Yum Center in Louisville, KY. Louisville defeated Georgia Tech 56-53. (Photo by David Blair/Icon Sportswire)

In that regard, that is as much on us as it is on him. We are the ones who have let these things play on as long as they have.

Given that, sincerely, who are we to judge?

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