Jim Calhoun's case isn't just about Calhoun

In 2011, where media is bigger and more diverse and noisier and more awesome than ever, it's hard to reach a bonafide consensus on any given news development. So, as expected, yesterday's Jim Calhoun news was eventually greeted with a variety of reactions. For a while there, though, it seemed that almost everyone -- barring Calhoun and the NCAA, which we'll get to in a second -- thought the punishment was, ahem, a slap on the wrist. (Anyone else ready to banish that phrase, like, forever? Me too.)

Judging by the tenor of the teleconference hosted by Committee on Infractions chairman Dennis Thomas, it's clear many in the media thought the three-game Big East suspension was far too lenient, considering the committee's report cites Calhoun himself for "failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance." Essentially, the NCAA admitted that it didn't believe Calhoun's story that he, Jim Calhoun, had worked tirelessly in his program to ensure NCAA compliance, and that if anything nefarious was happening it was obviously the fault of rogue agents working behind his back. (The telling of this story no doubt involved much table-slapping and collar-loosening.) Clearly, the NCAA didn't buy that line; it cited and punished the coach anyway.

But that punishment wasn't enough for most, including those of us assembled at ESPNU for the Experts yesterday. Frankly, I was a little bit baffled. Hadn't Calhoun simply used the same gambit -- plausible deniability -- coaches have been using to avoid NCAA scrutiny for decades?

Not exactly true. As Pat Forde pointed out yesterday, Calhoun's punishment does set something of a precedent: No longer can coaches fully expect to be held on a pedestal when facing NCAA trouble. Yesterday, even as Thomas was claiming the Committee on Infractions wasn't "into sending messages," that message was noticeably implicit.

Still, the punishment itself doesn't do much to harm the Connecticut Huskies. It doesn't rob them of a postseason (and all the cash a postseason brings). The scholarship reductions and recruiting limitations are nothing more than a "light spanking," according to our own Dave Telep. Calhoun doesn't have to sit out this year. The XL Center doesn't have to give tickets away for free. And when Calhoun does eventually miss next season's first three Big East games, we'll all yawn, say "Oh, yeah, Calhoun has to sit these out, remember that?" and move on with being stoked that college basketball is back in full swing.

No, the only harm done by this punishment is the harm Calhoun personally feels. That's what my colleague Dana O'Neil described aptly in her reaction -- filled with excellent insight into the hyper-competitive, self-conscious Calhoun's working mind -- yesterday:

Bruce Pearl has ably swan-dived on his sword, tearfully apologetic in the face of possible NCAA infractions and publicly contrite in the wake of Mike Slive’s eight-game conference suspension.

That’s not Jim Calhoun.

He is not one to take his medicine quietly or cede his position easily. He has spent 25 years at Connecticut tilting at windmills and fighting all comers, fiercely protecting his program and more, his own reputation.

He does not act to please others, but he does care that others perceive him appropriately.

Dana wrote, accurately I believe, that the punishment itself was probably too light (and justified with little more than doublespeak from the NCAA) even if Calhoun stubbornly, vehemently disagrees. Which is fine. Calhoun can disagree, can keep fighting for his reputation all he wants, can make veiled threats involving lawyers, and can keep on missing the point, which is that very few people believe him. (Do UConn fans even believe him?) Coaches don't suddenly stop micromanaging their programs when that micromanaging involves the AAU-runner-player triumverate. They know. We know. Everybody knows.

But Calhoun is super, duper upset, you guys! Does that make his punishment fit the crime? In the process of scolding "the media" for its impending reactions, the Sporting News's Mike DeCourcy wrote as much last night:

The most curious consequence of the NCAA infractions committee’s findings against Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun is how his future will diverge into two wildly different categories:

- The immediate future, in which the media generally will posit that Calhoun’s offenses were dealt with as gently as a toddler who spilled Hi-C on mom’s hardwood floor.

- The extended future, during which the media will assure the punishment for Calhoun is enduring, that he is perpetually referred to as an NCAA violator, that his legacy is as tarnished as it can be for one who has earned multiple NCAA championships and an honored place in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. [...]

Whatever Calhoun’s punishment might have been -- short of being forced to dine nightly at Taco Bell with Pete Rose and Tom DeLay -- members of the media would have carped about leniency. But Calhoun will remember this day the rest of his life, as surely as he’ll remember the nights he claimed the NCAA championship trophy.

As expected, Calhoun has taken this personally. He hates the fact that his legacy will be tarnished, that this Nate Miles business will sit forever alongside his well-won years of legendary success at the highest level of collegiate basketball. And yeah, that sounds like a bummer.

The problem is -- and this is the point I've taken so long to to get around to -- this isn't just about Calhoun.

Punishment never is. Punishment doesn't just exist to humiliate or reform the punished. That matters, sure, but the point of punishment -- whether we're talking about lawful society at large or detailed NCAA rulebooks specifically -- is to send a message to future rule-breakers that a) if you break a law or cheat, you will be caught, and b) if you are caught, you will not like the outcome.

Calhoun no doubt chafes at his punishment. But plenty of other coaches are less worried about their legacy. Plenty of upstarts -- AAU coaches, high school coaches, runners and agents -- got into this whole basketball thing because of money, respect, power, influence, Armani suits and Gucci loafers. These seedy types are more frequently found in AAU circles, but guess what: Some of them are already college coaches. Some of them have been for years.

If you're one of those coaches, what did you learn from the NCAA yesterday? That if the NCAA "catches" your program working with an agent to land a player, the most you have to worry about is a three-game conference suspension. Oooh. Scary.

This is what's frustrating about Calhoun's penalty. It's not like those who think Calhoun's penalty is too lenient -- and it is too lenient! -- are out for the man's blood. (Well, maybe some of them are, but I'm certainly not.) It's because the Committee on Infractions, despite its stated lack of interest in "sending messages," did exactly that. It told prospective cheaters not to worry all that much. It said that as long as you can make an argument on your behalf, it won't actually punish you in any tangible way. It won't take away your team's postseason. It won't give you a show-cause penalty preventing you from working in the sport for five or 10 years. (That is, unless you're a willing scapegoat.) It won't take away your suits, or your cars, or the job that allows you to buy all those pretty things. It will taint your legacy, and that's it.

Surely that is not the message the NCAA intended to send. Surely, given the organization's increased and much-lauded focus on the AAU-runner-agent problem in the past two years, that is not the future it sees for its coaches and institutions -- that if you can plausibly deny you knew what was happening in your program, you can escape punishment for your program's illegal behavior. But that is the message coaches everywhere got.

Calhoun might be peeved, but this case isn't just about Calhoun. It's about a choice: Either the NCAA wants to take on the agent problem or it doesn't. There is no backing down from that choice, no hiding behind the "no messages" claim. Whether he likes it or not, Thomas and his committee did send a message yesterday, and it's a message cheaters everywhere, both current and prospective, heard loud and clear.