Let’s be clear: Mitch McGary is not a maize-and-blue martyr. He smoked marijuana, which is illegal in Michigan and remains on the NCAA’s list of banned substances.
He messed up. To his immense credit, he admitted it, even though had he kept his mouth shut, odds are this never would have gone public.
His punishment is that he was forced to make a decision that he might have made anyway. McGary will forgo his final two years of college and put his name in the NBA draft. He will not be destitute, banished and exiled to the unemployment line. His life will not be over, so let’s save the hankies here.
However (and please put the proper emphasis on that word, a la my colleague Stephen A. Smith), that doesn’t mean McGary hasn’t been at least partially victimized and that the culprit isn’t the same old group in Indianapolis.
His is yet another in a litany of cases in which the NCAA simply cannot see the gray and, worse, refuses to allow for it.
McGary took a drug test on March 28, according to a Yahoo Sports report, after the Wolverines beat Tennessee in the Sweet 16.
One week after that, he was told he tested positive.
On April 15, the NCAA agreed its punishment for street drugs -- a full year’s suspension -- was too severe and decided to reduce the penalty for first-time offenders to half a season.
But McGary failed under the old rule and, even upon appeal, was denied the half-season penalty.
There was no attempt to meet the kid in the middle, to recognize that, by offering a half-season suspension, the NCAA wasn’t being soft; it was being reasonable.
And that remains the crux of the problem.
On Friday, Northwestern football players took to the polls to vote on unionizing.
On Thursday, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors met in Indianapolis to endorse giving more autonomy to the big boys of college athletics, the PowerBall 5 of the Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12.
The two groups are coming at things from wildly different directions, but the goal is the same: to essentially make an organization that has been built on the backs of athletes that is actually of the athletes, by the athletes and for the athletes.
Ever since university presidents shoved their loafers in their mouths at the NCAA convention -- offering blank stares to an athlete who brazenly suggested the kids who play the sports might actually be involved in their own decision-making process -- the NCAA has practically tripped over itself promising a kinder, friendlier organization (although never a unionized one).
At the Final Four, NCAA president Mark Emmert and his posse sat at a podium and Emmert said, "The proposals that are under consideration would have both voice and vote for student-athletes."
But this, this case of Mitch McGary, remains the reality.
The organization is not athlete-centric. It is rulebook-centric. The athlete-centric group looks at the fact that the very group that made the rule has deemed the punishment too severe and offered McGary -- and any other first-time offenders from this NCAA tournament that we haven’t heard about -- the reduced penalty.
The rulebook-centric crew says, "Tough nuts. You’re done."
Just like the rulebook-centric group initially told Mormon missionary/Colgate freshman Nathan Harries that he couldn’t play for a year because he played as a fill-in during three rec league games.
Just like the rulebook-centric group at first denied Rutgers’ Kerwin Okoro a hardship waiver after he transferred from Iowa State to be closer to home after his father and brother died.
Just like the rulebook-centric group initially told Middle Tennessee quarterback Steven Rhodes he was ineligible for a year because he played with a military team while serving in the Marines.
The NCAA can propose, endorse and vote on all sorts of changes and give Mike Slive, Jim Delany, John Swofford, Larry Scott and Bob Bowlsby their own fiefdoms, but until it discovers the fine art of common sense, it won’t work. Until it replaces its rigidity with understanding, it will fail.
Every society needs rules, and the truth is college coaches have no one to blame but themselves for the monstrosity that is the NCAA rulebook. If they spent more time adhering to the rules as written as opposed to trying to work the loopholes, we might not be where we are.
But rules need to be subject to interpretation, as do their punishments.
Harries, Okoro and Rhodes were all eventually cleared to play -- after all three received extensive media coverage detailing the absurdity of their situations.
That won’t happen for McGary. His decision to leave is final.
There shouldn’t need to be extensive media coverage to unveil the obvious. There should be room to examine a rule, a punishment -- and most of all, the gray -- and make a smart, fair and reasonable decision.
And until the NCAA allows for that, it will be offering little more than lip service to being a student-athlete-first organization.