There's something undeniably picky about the NCAA's insistence that the University of Kentucky apologize for publicly honoring Wildcats basketball coach John Calipari with a game ball and a commemorative ceremony in February for his 500th win. Kentucky knew full well the NCAA had vacated 42 wins that Calipari collected at the University of Massachusetts and Memphis with players who were later ruled ineligible. Maybe that's why I love this spat. It may be a slapfight the NCAA is pushing. But it's a righteous slapfight, dammit. And anyway, Kentucky started it.
I love that the NCAA is so hacked off it shows no signs of budging until it prevails.
I realize sticking up for the NCAA on this -- on anything -- leaves me nearly alone in my field. And normally if someone told me it's necessary to have a piece of paper or bauble such as the game ball Calipari got to prove something really happened, such as those 42 missing wins or Calipari's first two big, noisy, now-discredited Final Four trips, I'd disagree. I'd say the memories are inside YOU, silly! You don't need tangible proof!
I'm spiritual that way.
But the argument that the NCAA shouldn't vacate wins or titles because you can't pretend those games were not played has always missed the point to me.
I never thought that's what the NCAA suggests when it strikes results from the record books.
I thought the NCAA was spanking the lying, cheating programs, coaches and players it does catch with one of the few methods it has in its frustratingly puny arsenal. And I'm all for that. Why? Because clawing back the ill-gotten honors and wins and tournament swag is one of the only sanctions that follows those lying, cheating so-and-sos when they bolt to other programs or the pros (Yeah, I'm talking to you, Pete Carroll, Reggie Bush, the Fab Five. Join the club, Terrelle Pryor? And how you escaped, Cam Newton, I'll never know. ) And, by the way, pro success is no automatic ticket to forgiveness. It can revive scrutiny. Ask Dallas Mavericks guard Jason Terry.
But there's another emotion at work here for me, too. I've got scandal fatigue. After being yanked down by all the scandals in college sports the past few years, I've reached my personal threshold. I can't remember another year like this one, in which the reigning football and men's basketball champions both had seasons marred by accusations of wrongdoing: Auburn because of the Cecil and Cam Newton drama, and UConn because of rules violations that led head coach Jim Calhoun's three-game suspension for the start of Big East play next season. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
For me, it feels a little cathartic -- not just correct -- to see NCAA investigators rapping someone on the knuckles when they can and insisting if someone does the crime they've got to do the punishment.
Which brings us back to Calipari.
For all the well-chronicled charitable work Calipari does and for all the raves about what an engaging personality good ol' Coach Cal has, perhaps you've noticed trouble has a way of finding the guy's programs the way metal shavings gravitate to a magnet.
Calipari has accomplished a rare double-dip in college basketball: He's had two Final Four trips vacated. At UMass, star player Marcus Camby was accused of taking a bunch of things, and at Memphis, one-and-done star Derrick Rose was ruled ineligible because of questions about his college entrance exam. Both are long stories, and the arguments each saga caused about how to accurately view Calipari's career have never been made more bracingly than how Charles Pierce put them here.
The apologists and critics' short versions go something like this: Mistakes were made. Things have occasionally looked shady around Calipari's programs as he hauls in blue-chip recruits in troves. But hey, did I mention Coach Cal has a terrific personality?
So lampoon the NCAA's hissy fit over this all you want. We can agree to disagree. But I'm amused by this.
The NCAA said 42 wins never happened. Then Kentucky decided to pretend the NCAA's punishment of Calipari never happened. And here we are.
The combination of UK's disdain for the NCAA's meddling in its honoring of Calipari and UK's lingering irritation over how the NCAA ruled star recruit Enes Kanter ineligible because he played pro ball in Turkey and Calipari's winking answer to a question posed to him about making his third trip to the Final Four last March -- not his first, as the official records say -- brought this scuffle on.
By that tournament press conference of Calipari's, the NCAA had already written Kentucky asking it to explain why it honored Calipari for the 500th win that was/wasn't. In subsequent weeks, Kentucky administrator Sandy Bell sent back a series of written responses that said, among other things, Calipari feels the NCAA has a vendetta against him -- which the NCAA hotly denied in its volley back. Bell also argued the vacated wins were just "a statistical note" since "they did occur," and the NCAA, reacting to the cavalier tone, barked back in writing that in both cases Calipari was punished for "violations of well-known, fundamental NCAA legislation."
Kentucky, whose athletic department didn't respond to two requests for comment for this story, now has until Friday to apologize, or risk being hauled before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions.
"But hauled in for what?" Eric Crawford of Louisville's The Courier-Journal has pointed out. "A lack of statistical control?"
Nah. Just the principle.
Love 'em or hate 'em, the NCAA is all we have. College sports is better off having some policing agent rather than none at all.
Big-time NCAA sports are troubled, all right. The NCAA enforcement apparatus is too. But you can't just back away and say college sports should be the equivalent of Amsterdam or Bangkok -- places in which anything goes. Some of the NCAA's twisted logic in its rulings and in its compromised relationships with the BCS bowls drives me crazy. But not this fight with UK and Calipari.
The NCAA can't let someone pretend punishment handed down never happened.
If anybody put the bull's-eye on Calipari again, it was UK and Calipari.
And for what? Just to double-dare the NCAA to do something about it?
The NCAA has.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.