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OP-ED: Vassar’s lawsuit raises all the wrong questions for Northwestern

Ben Goren, longtime Northwestern fan, pits his conscience against the reality of college basketball.

Northwestern v Vanderbilt Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Former Inside NU editor Ben Goren, now of Mid-Major Madness, is back from the netherworld to grapple with the Johnnie Vassar situation, which has bugged him all season. Now that the season is over and even more details are out, he’s written this op-ed to express his views on how far Northwestern basketball should go for success.

Once upon a time, this is everything I ever wanted. Northwestern basketball has made the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern students care, deeply. The impossible has happened.

But basketball is just a game. How much do I care about a game? How much do I care about my school winning this game? In light of the dirt underneath the surface, I’m not sure if this is what I wanted anymore. It bothers me. It may not bother you, but it bothers me.

Frankly, it looks like Northwestern was willing to lie and cheat in order to get Johnnie Vassar off of his athletic scholarship. You cannot look at the litany of evidence presented by Vice Sports (and, it should be said, Inside NU’s founder Kevin Trahan) and continue to pretend that Northwestern entirely did the right thing. This is more than just testimony, there are multiple third parties, including NCAA officials and the editorial staff of Vice, looking at specific documents and coming to the conclusion that Johnnie Vassar’s complaint in the lawsuit holds water. There appears to be a clear and concerted effort to demean and dehumanize a player to the point where, the administration hoped, he would have to transfer to a different university.

Can we pause and just think about how absolutely insane that is? Could you imagine being berated by your professor every day? Could you imagine that authority figure making you clean up after your classmates, refusing to let you switch jobs, and then shunning you just decided to pack up and leave the university that was your first home away from home?

I won’t get past that. But some people are perfectly willing to. The University, the media and some alums argue that Northwestern basketball is a bastion of excellence and moral might.

From the newspapers, (in this case David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune)...

What a ridiculous, dated notion, an assumption that a university must choose one or the other — strong academics or athletics. Northwestern refused to make those compromises under athletic director Jim Phillips, and Collins used his national platform to promote the school's philosophy.

"I wanted to have guys that wanted to be great basketball players and great students … why can't you want both?'' Collins said. "We wanted guys that wanted to be at a place like Northwestern for everything that it had to offer, not just the academics, not just the basketball, but both.''

to the television talk show host...

to Jim Phillips...

Northwestern’s brand as a school that “does the right thing” is a real concept.

I think this needs to stop now. Not because fans of other teams find it insufferable, but because it appears to be totally inaccurate. Either that, or we need to be very clear about what “The Right Way” actually entails. Is “the Right Way” falsifying your athlete’s timecards? Is “The Right Way” forcing your athletes to sign non-disclosure agreements as they are rushed out the door? Is the “Right Way” giving sports a free pass for behavior that would otherwise be reprehensible?

No. Does not compute.

I don’t believe there is a conspiracy of entitled Northwestern athletes seeking to upend “good, hard work” done by coaches. The simplest explanation, one of huge institutional breakdowns in the case of Johnnie Vassar, is the one I’m going with. I’m not here ordering you or even other writers on this website to agree with me.

There is no short-selling the tremendous job that Chris Collins has done as a basketball coach. He took a program with zero history and trash facilities and spun that into a recruiting pitch that landed more raw talent than the program has ever had. He hasn't even had all his players at full strength, and yet the team has still gotten it done.

Chris Collins is an immensely talented coach. Anyone who wants to see Northwestern climb higher should be opening their pockets to fund his next pay raise. I’ve watched Northwestern through the dark days and I get the enormity of his revitalization project. It’s amazing.

But that’s basketball. It’s just basketball. There are things other than basketball, right? Is the success giving him leeway? Are we using basketball success to judge things outside of basketball? That’s not rational to me.

Crack open anything written about Collins and you'll find the same word plastered over the pages: Culture. The Culture of Northwestern basketball has changed. The Culture of being a Northwestern fan has changed. Out with the old, in with the new. This “Culture” is refined, results-oriented, and still kosher with Northwestern’s high educational and moral standards as a top institution.

But here’s the thing about power conference college sports: its Culture revolves around treating its earners like dirt. To me, it feels like a culture of exploitation. No one is exempt from that, including Northwestern. Northwestern cannot escape the NCAA’s culture of exploitation at this level, as it rakes in $8.8 billion in March Madness TV revenue alone over eight years while paying its athletes in scholarships that can seemingly be shredded if a coach says so. Just because players stick around for four years doesn’t mean the culture is any different. The competing cultures do not add up, and the Vassar case proves that. Competing values have happened before. It’s not new.

Meanwhile, painting Vassar as a selfish whiner who lacked Northwestern’s “Culture” is equally paradoxical to me. Johnnie Vassar should be Northwestern’s poster child. He’s from a rough background, and had tough high school experiences, who made it to Northwestern. His studies are so important to him that he wasn’t willing to transfer to a school with less rigorous academics just so he could continue to play sports. Isn’t that exactly what Northwestern wants its athletes to be?

I’m done with any noise you hear about how Northwestern does it better, or cleaner, or morally superior than other schools. After seeing the Vassar lawsuit itself, or what Kevin Trahan published on Monday, or this piece about softball, or the non-disclosure agreements, I’ve tuned out the platitudes. There’s something there. These are real people, maybe your friends, your kids, your grandkids, who are going through the machine of 21st century college sports. And there are consequences.

On a macro level, Northwestern athletes are treated very, very well. Northwestern pumps out dozens of Academic-All Big Ten selections every quarter. The players do well in school and academic counselors make sure that the degrees that athletes take with them after graduating are more than just a piece of paper. By metrics like APR and GSR, Northwestern continues to pass with flying colors. And that’s good.

And if that’s all that “The Right Way” means, then fine, Northwestern is doing that. I concede that point.

The hiring of Chris Collins coincided with an incredible maturing of the entire Northwestern Apparatus. Compare what the athletic department looks like today to what it did when Bill Carmody was circling the drain. It's visible in even the simple stuff. The uniforms are cool. The graphics are cool. The Gothic Jersey, the first harbinger of a "Cool and Modern" Northwestern, was released in 2014.

There's the much bigger stuff too. A shiny new lakeside football facility. A new basketball arena. New basketball facilities. Even the soccer/field hockey/lacrosse fields got redone. Like everything else at Northwestern, the athletics facilities are all new. Everything that Northwestern has matured into in the last few years, which is to say a “Big Time Sports School” and not just the “Quirky Weird Big Ten Cousin”, was started just about four years ago. The results are staggering, and generally a huge benefit for the school and its athletes.

Northwestern is doing a better job reaching its students, its alumni, Evanston, and Chicago. Every boat has been raised by the rising tide. Football has won 10 games twice in the last five years. Men's tennis is legit now. Golf rules. Women's Lax isn't quite as good but is still really good. Look at any corner in the Northwestern Empire and you'll find crazy growth.

Northwestern is serious about sports now. But there’s a price to everything, as Milton Friedman would say, and ignoring it is unsettling to me.

I do, believe it or not, understand the people who think that the off-the-court issues presented by the Chris Collins Era are tangential to this year's story, and not in an annoying "I understand why they're so dumb" way. Wanting to enjoy a basketball team as a distraction is okay.

But Northwestern basketball is being sued, no matter how many times you want to look away. Johnnie Vassar thought it would be worth the trouble to bring a lawsuit to his family’s doorstep. You might say it doesn’t matter. The Vassar scholarship was never filled. There seems to be some degree of mutual responsibility for the breakdown in the relationship. But they also tried to destroy his college experience through any means necessary, ethics be damned. And to some people, that really matters.

Northwestern allegedly badgered the Vassar family incessantly. All quotes are from Trahan’s article.

Phone records provided to VICE Sports show that Collins, the assistant coach Gates, and the director of player development Humphrey called Vassar and his mother 16 times between March 16 and March 28, 2015.

They allegedly tried to get Vassar to sign a blank roster release form (which, perhaps more than anything else, shows that Northwestern is incompetent when it comes to pressuring a player away).

Vassar showed VICE Sports a sticky note that he said Humphrey left on a blank roster deletion form that read, "JV, Sign this paper. You can still work out and play pickup with the guys. I told you before I am still here for you. - Hump." Vassar said he refused to sign the form, knowing that Northwestern staffers could fill it out after the fact however they wanted.

"I told them I'm not gonna sign a blank document," he said. "That's just dumb."

Northwestern allegedly made Johnnie Vassar work as some kind of janitor around campus.

"I was very insulted, and I was cleaning up for a team that I used to play for," he said. "If it was raining, I would have to wipe down the tennis seats, but then it would rain again, so I'd be sent right back there to do that. I was also blowing leaves and had to rake them up. It was also weird because it was in the middle of campus, and people would ask, 'What are you doing?'"

There’s so much stuff, documented stuff, in the report over at Vice that there really is no other way of seeing Northwestern’s actions as incredibly improper and utterly nauseating. And sure, it’s not new, but its recency doesn’t make it irrelevant.

Beyond that, the university allegedly doctored time cards in an effort to make Johnnie Vassar look guilty. And I’m pretty sure I don’t necessarily have to use “allegedly” here, because Vassar won his internal appeal against Northwestern on those grounds.

That’s crazy! Northwestern was willing to lie and cheat in order to get Johnnie Vassar off of his athletic scholarship.

They still broke their promise/contract to Johnnie Vassar of a guaranteed, four-year athletic scholarship. There are perks that come with that athletic scholarship that are important, ones that I certainly would have loved to have. Johnnie Vassar certainly thought they were important. And even if that moral, person-to-person stuff doesn’t move the needle for you, it’s a blatant attempt to circumvent NCAA rules. The only ways you can move someone from an athletic to merit based scholarship, according to NCAA Bylaw 15.3.5 are as follows:

"(a) Renders himself or herself ineligible for intercollegiate competition;

(b) Fraudulently misrepresents any information on an application, letter of intent or financial aid agreement...;

(c) Engages in serious misconduct warranting substantial disciplinary penalty, as determined by the institution's regular student disciplinary authority;

(d) Voluntarily (on his or her own initiative) withdraws from a sport at any time for personal reasons;... or

(e) Violates a nonathletically related condition outlined in the financial aid agreement or violates a documented institutional rule or policy (e.g., academics policies or standards, athletics department or team rules or policies)."

It’s difficult to envision the scenario in which Vassar did any of these things. By pretending that he fraudulently signed a time card, Northwestern could make the case to the NCAA that they were following the rules. It seems pretty clear that there are some holes in Northwestern’s story.

Here’s another thing to remember: the courts will not be the best arbiter of judgement in whether or not the specific allegations in this lawsuit are true, regardless of your moral take on the matter. If Northwestern releases its side of the story, if ever, then maybe we can make a judgment on whether the allegations are true. But that may not happen. Johnnie Vassar’s case depends on qualifying himself as a “class” of transfer athletes that requires specific legal protection. Filing this case as a class-action means that Northwestern can basically respond to the suit by denying Vassar’s eligibility as a class. Northwestern is probably going to win on those grounds. That was certainly one of the aims in their response to the complaint in court. If the court dismisses it, it doesn’t mean the events are simply fantasy.

Thus, if and when Northwestern does win this suit, that doesn’t mean that the allegations are not loathsome and not actions unbefitting of a program that “represents all that is good and right.” To me, the easiest way out of having to meaningfully engage in what this means for your fandom is to say “well we should wait for the legal process to play itself out.” Doing so is just kicking the can down the road and giving yourself an extra out.

And sure, it's a perfectly rational response to this column, or my tweets, or anything else with the thesis of "what about Johnnie Vassar?" to just say "let me have fun." Okay, we can all have fun, but there must be a question this Northwestern team can force us to answer: how much are you willing to give up for success? How much are you willing to give up for winning some basketball games?

Every team that makes the Tournament with any kind of regularity over-signs. That's a fact. Northwestern's 4-year scholarship guarantees and its general obsession with “Doing It The Right Way” makes the situation slightly different, but there are plenty of other somewhat comparable schools who do the same thing. Shoot, Michigan run-offs have won Big Ten Championships in back-to-back years now (Spike Albrecht with Purdue this year and Max Bielfeldt to Indiana last year). It's a terrible thing to do. I don’t think schools should treat athletes like sharecroppers in a system that already denies them so many rights they deserve. It's also something everyone does. Coaches will continue to do it and athletic directors will continue to abet those choices. They are not arbiters of morality, they are in charge of winning basketball games.

But again: what are us fans willing to give up for success? If it's nothing, we can go back 15 years and watch Northwestern win three Big Ten games a year. If it's everything, enjoy the bad that comes with the banners. If it's somewhere in-between (it is), we must try and figure where the line between fair and foul is, and, as someone who's been trying to figure that out for the last 12 months or so, that is a very difficult exercise.

I hope that Jim Phillips decides to investigate his athletic department that, allegedly, lied to a player about his legal counsel's advice and forged signatures to try and force him out. And if the school broke NCAA rules, then he has to be somewhat accountable.

In the end, you don't get something without sacrificing anything. I hope this season and this future is worth it.

And lastly, the standard Northwestern defense mechanism of “that doesn’t happen here” isn’t good enough any more. We’re not plucky underdogs going against the system with our superior...everything. Northwestern is down in the dirt with the rest of the big boys, which may be hard to take. But without the dirt, there’s no NCAA Tournament and lots of sad sports fans. Can you advocate fair treatment of athletes while giving your dollars to a program that supports what happened to Vassar? I’m genuinely unsure.

However, I’d be a lot more comfortable with it if Northwestern fans and the school itself stopped pretending that we do it “Righter” or “Better” or “Cleaner” than anyone else.