No Press Defense – Unchecked Power, Denial and Louisville Basketball

By Alexander Haynes
Sports Journalist

Part one of a three part series 

Crime and the subsequent punishment is a point and tangent which plagues mankind. An old adage is crime begets a fall from glory, yet crime has a way of deteriorating the soul, and in truth, no glory initially existed. The misnomer that glory once existed for men such as the University of Louisville and Rick Pitino assumes that public knowledge of the crime perceptually ruins men and is the punishment. No, the punishment for Pitino began decades ago upon the inception of the initial crime – a lack of repentance and respect of integrity to deepen activity in scandal eons ago set in stone a pattern of lies which did not only hurt Pitino, but those lives he touched.

Facts go beyond the surface level of investigation, title and wins and losses. Crime permeates an organization and allows for timidity in integrity and honesty. In other words, crime is exponential, flowing wider and wider until it redefines those who commit such acts. And that is what happened at the University of Louisville, a lack of integrity redefined college basketball and that which was unacceptable.

The following is a three-part series detailing Rick Pitino, the University of Louisville, and NCAA recruiting scandals. The first part will provide the timeline regarding Pitino’s career and an on-campus brothel ring. The second part will provide timeline regarding NCAA recruiting violation, white-collar and monetary crimes. The third part will provide commentary, implications and lessons on that which has incurred.

The Pitino Timeline

It’s 1987, a Final Four defined by drama, usurpation of traditional power and legendary games. Only, it wasn’t. Time has an odd way of refocusing narrative. The unknown Providence Friars and Rick Pitino would defeat number one seed Georgetown for a Final Four bid. That headline is what is remembered from the year 1987, not the fact Syracuse quickly disposed of Providence and then the Bob Knight Indiana Hoosiers would win a 74-73 title matchup against Syracuse.

Why is the narrative of 1987 important to note? Not to discredit who Providence was, but to establish the darling nature of who Pitino was, and to some extent, still is. This is how an unknown coach began his career with fundamental ingenuity and analytical mastery. Running his offense around the perimeter of the three-point line and willing to take shoot from the three-point line, his 1990 Kentucky team earned the nickname “Pitino’s Bombinos.” To this day, his offense paved a modern flow of basketball offenses, credited being the coach willing to risk tradition for creativity.

Not all was glory for Pitino. A tenure with the Boston Celtics on a 10-year coaching contract ended after a 102-146 record and three years. This was his second failed attempt to coach in the NBA, but his charm was fit to the unchecked power of the collegiate ranks and in 2001, Louisville hired Pitino. Unprecedented success including three trips to the Final Four, a 2013 NCAA Championship and a 416-143 record would endear basketball to Louisville, defining the narrative and life of the school.

Behind the Scenes

Louisville courtyard. Photo from Wiki Commons.

For the better part of Pitino’s 2001 to 2017 tenure, Louisville stood scandal free. Pitino himself was involved in a sexual blackmail scandal with Karen Sypher. The muddied investigation and lies from both Sypher and Pitino are left for discussion, but in the end Sypher was prisoned for seven-years after blackmailing Pitino. No matter, the school itself was fairly untouched. So much so, on June 9, 2015, Pitino received a 10-year, $50.93 million extension.

And that is when the glorious control of narrative began to unfold for the basketball darling.

On Oct. 20, 2015, an early morning ESPN Outside the Lines interview with escort Katina Powell would put the eye of the sporting world upon the Louisville basketball program, former assistant Andre McGee and Pitino. The interview focused on a recently released book from Powell, “Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen,” in which journal entries detailed how she was paid to lead a brothel ring in which dancers would dance, party with and have sex with basketball players and recruits between the years of 2010 to 2014. Pitino and the University denied the allegations or any such knowledge, but the effects and details would rattle the core of the program for the coming months.

Powell’s allegations were naturally picked apart and questioned: why would she indict herself for leading a prostitution ring so scrupulous it included her own daughters? Question regarding her motivation needed to be answered, and Dick Cady (Pulitzer Prize journalist) was hired by Indianapolis based IBJ Book Publishing to assist in the book.

The allegations began that assistant coach McGee was paying Powell to bring dancers to the dormitories of Louisville for parties and sex with basketball players. Cady reported that the dorms were “porous” and security by EdR, a private dorm management company, consisted of “one old man.” Hence, the students and those responsible could do as they will in an atmosphere which focused on the vanity of party.

No implicit photos of sex acts were taken, but pictures of stripped down women were released to, “add context” for court proceedings. Recruits said of the atmosphere of Billy Minardi Hall, “[It] was like in a strip club.” McGee allegedly handed dollar bills to the players and let the recruits choose a dancer, and then commence sexual activity in a private, adjoining room. Ultimately $10,000 was allegedly funneled from McGee to Powell to run the brothel.

Players anonymously confirmed the events, while others named (Terry Rozier, JaQuan Lyle, Antonio Blakeney, Jordan Mickey to name a few) either denied allegations, left vague commentary or declined to comment. JaQuan Lyle, whom ultimately signed with Ohio State, confirmed the “gist” of the reports. McGee was ultimately put on paid leave by the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and resigned on Oct. 23.

To jump ahead of the NCAA, the University initiated their own investigation, which Pitino agreed to while simultaneously adamantly denying any knowledge of the parties. Their punishment was self-removal from the 2016 tournament due to the scandal. A year later, the NCAA indicated Louisville on four Level I violations and Pitino for failure to monitor McGee.

The Problem of Power

Recruiting in the college basketball world has become dirty and is more akin to 1960s level Cold War negotiation than a spirited attempt to convince players each University is the best. Regardless of Pitino’s honesty on direct or indirect knowledge of the brothel, he is complicit in the establishment of a culture which removed tenants of honorable behavior. Leadership establishes culture in organizations, and the culture at Louisville, at minimum, allowed McGee to feel comfortable enough to lead a brothel for four years.

Beyond the obvious problem of illicit activity, the philosophical tenants around this sports and college scandal tells the tale of a coach and program which was influenced by controlling the power narrative and committing crimes with consequences flowing beyond those intrinsically involved. What might the implications for the families of recruits (named and unnamed), or the girls involved? Somehow, the taint was controlled by Pitino, and life continued for the powers at be. Or in other words, the power and culture was not killed, but lived on under the happy of go-lucky narrative of basketball.

Alas, On June 3, 2017, a simple radio interview with Pitino would provide insight to a story, while not as nefarious with regards to sex, is becoming a classic tale of white-collar crime. No glory ever existed at Louisville, only the perception of glory.

Featured image from Wiki Commons.


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