Ultimately the case of Shabazz Muhammad will not be about the UCLA player at all. He is merely the name, the latest player caught in the NCAA crosshairs, punished for a period of time and ultimately allowed to play.
This really is about the NCAA and how it does business or, more accurately, how it doesn't do business. The people there are well intentioned. They work hard. They try. Their hearts are in the right place.
And they are pit bull paper pushers with Chihuahua teeth.
The system doesn't work, not fairly and not effectively.
On Tuesday in all likelihood, UCLA will play Indiana in the Legends Classic in Brooklyn.
The Hoosiers will be without Peter Jurkin and Hanner Perea because the NCAA decided to sit them nine games, not because Mark Adams provided them with nearly $15,000 in benefits. No, that was OK because it came under the framework of his nonprofit organization. No, the problem was 20 years ago he donated $185 to IU and that made him a booster. So mix that in with the $15,000 and they have to sit nine games.
Meanwhile, Muhammad will suit up for the Bruins, his punishment for an agreed $1,600 worth of impermissible benefits a mere three games.
Last week, San Diego State freshman Winston Shepard was told he would be out three games, too. His repayment: $400.
Forget who you think is guilty or innocent.
Forget which team you support.
Do the math. That doesn't make any sense.
It doesn't even fit in the framework of the NCAA rules. NCAA student-athlete reinstatement guidelines stipulate that an impermissible benefit of $1,000 or more equates to 30 percent withholding and repayment.
Even in new math, $1,600 exceeds $1,000 but on appeal, Muhammad was given dispensation for time served.
When asked, NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn declined to offer an explanation.
And that's why this is about the NCAA and any shred of credibility it has left. People, important people, have lost faith in the system. Two years ago, I polled 20 anonymous coaches about a litany of subjects, including their faith in the NCAA. All but three thought the organization was trying; few thought it could actually accomplish anything.
This case is why. Trying to predict an NCAA decision these days is like trying to predict a teenage girl's mood.
Of course, as soon as the news broke in the Los Angeles Times about the beau of an NCAA investigator blabbing on an airplane about his girlfriend's confidence in the matter of Muhammad, I knew the jig was up.
It was hearsay, sure, and completely unfair to the investigator's reputation (full disclosure: I know her. She works her tail off), but it was damning -- an organization that takes itself as seriously as the KGB when it comes to secrecy allowing pillow talk to go viral at 20,000 feet.
The NCAA might as well have just thrown up a white flag outside the offices at that point because, whatever evidence it may or may not have had, it was going to save face. Muhammad was as good as cleared at that point.
If the Mark Emmert regime has proven adept at anything, it is standing in front of a microphone and kowtowing to public opinion and the need for good PR.
The real problem, though, is bigger than mere grandstanding.
The NCAA admittedly tracks high-profile recruits long before they sign their letters of intent. The idea is to get in front of any potential rule problems before they become an issue.
Muhammad, in fact, was on the radar for some time and in February, CBSSports.com reported that coaches were being told he could have eligibility issues because of his relationship with financial advisor Benjamin Lincoln.
Lo and behold, the season begins without Muhammad because he is under investigation for unofficial visits Lincoln may have funded.
But when push came to shove -- and the Muhammad family pushed with a vengeance, backed by a vigilant attorney and that gossip-mongering boyfriend -- he was cleared just three games in with a magical poof of the Indianapolis wand.
Forget the rulebook (a new policy established in the Penn State case). Let's just say three games is enough, dollar amount and written punishment be damned.
How in the world can anyone have faith in a system so flawed it can rewrite the rules on a whim? In decisions that have the consistency of wet pasta? When one player is cleared after three games and another after nine; when an expelled athlete accused of sexual assault (Dez Wells) can get a hardship waiver but one leaving an institution that's ineligible for the postseason to be near his ill grandmother (Michael Bradley) cannot; when decisions seem to be rendered by a sports-minded Oz, a blustering voice that a lap dog can bring down.
In the end it all just looks like a tiresome game of cat and mouse, of an idealistic group trying to punish a kid who frankly wouldn't even be in college if another supposed well-intentioned group (the NBA) didn't think it would do him some good.
I can't say why bother because there should be a bother. Equal playing fields are never equal -- ask the SWAC and MEAC schools about that -- but they shouldn't be rendered so lopsided by under the table payments the Mafia would envy.
But if you're going to go in, you've got to be willing to go all in. If you want and need people to trust the system, then the system has to be consistent, not woefully arbitrary.
The NCAA is redoing its enforcement process. Just recently it announced that head coaches would be held accountable for the actions of their assistants.
That's a fine idea, except this isn't about making new rules or throwing out crummy ones. It's about making a system strong enough that people believe in it.
And right now the NCAA's is shaking people's faith.