Welcome back to Failure to Monitor, the series about the NCAA and how they’ve been shaped by scandal. Last week, we took a look at the origins of the NCAA, and how the modern organization functions. We saw that it was born out of necessity and that their authority comes from the precedents they set. Today, I’m going to tell you about the first chance they got to set a major precedent. While the first few years of the NCAA’s existence were relatively quiet, the scandals came in fast and hard in the 1950s. And although they doled out punishments to multiple schools, one in particular set the tone for the future: the University of Kentucky.
Ask any college basketball fan who the top programs in the country are, and, odds are, they’ll bring up the Kentucky Wildcats sooner rather than later. And, unlike most schools, their dominance started from day one. By 1952, the school had won three national championships and sixteen SEC championships, including a streak of 9 in a row up to that point. Legendary coach Adolph Rupp had the wildcats on top of the college basketball world. He thought his team was untouchable. So much so that, when rumblings of a scandal began, he claimed that the league “couldn’t reach my boys with a ten-foot pole.” Unfortunately for Kentucky, he was dead wrong.
This story, as with most in the SEC, begins with the football team. Nick Englisis played on Kentucky’s football team for two seasons, during which he witnessed the cheating that was rampant at the time. Most good players were well compensated by outside boosters, but Englisis wasn’t that good. Instead, he spent his time making friends on the basketball team. After he left Kentucky, Englisis decided to get into the gambling business with his brother Tony. Like most people in the gambling business, Nick wanted to make sure the odds were in his favor. So he called up his old buddy and former teammate Ralph Beard. During that time, Beard chose to focus on basketball and became one of the best players in the country. After a quick conversation with Beard and two of his teammates, Alex Groza and Dale Barnstable, they had come to an agreement. The trio would do their best to make sure that Kentucky won by a certain number of points each game, also known as point shaving.
Quick sidebar for those who might not be aware of the sports gambling world; for each game, casinos select a number of points that the favored team is expected to win by, allowing you to bet whether the favorite would win by this amount or not. This is known as the spread. The Kentucky trio made sure that their final margin of victory ended up on whichever side of this spread they were told.
For a few years in the late 1940s, the system worked exactly as intended. Englisis won his bets, and the three players got their cut of the winnings. However, things came crashing down in the 1949 National Invitational Tournament, or NIT. While the present-day NIT is clearly inferior to the NCAA Tournament, at the time it was the premier college basketball tournament. The two were also not mutually exclusive, and many teams, including Kentucky, played in both. That year, Kentucky matched up against Loyola University Chicago in the quarterfinals. Englisis paid the players to make sure that Kentucky did not cover the spread, meaning that they wanted to win the game, but not by too much. The trio had to make sure to keep the game close. The problem was, they kept it too close, and Loyola ended up winning. Englisis won his bet, but now one of the best teams in the nation was knocked out of the premier postseason tournament. Their next game was in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Villanova. This time Kentucky won, but again, there was a problem. Despite the trio’s efforts, Kentucky didn’t cover, and Englisis went bust. Finally, in 1951, the three players, along with a few basketball stars at City College of New York, were arrested for accepting bribes to shave points.
Even though the perpetrators were punished by the federal government, the NCAA decided that it was a chance to flex their muscles. They launched an official investigation, in which they discovered even more improprieties among Kentucky basketball, including paying players and fielding players that were academically ineligible. All this added up to be a major black eye for the organization that was still in its infancy. In steps Walter Byers, the president of the NCAA at the time. He knew that he had to make an example out of the Wildcats, so he decided to ban the school from participating for an entire season. But, as we discussed last week, the NCAA actually didn’t have the power to do that. The schools could do whatever they wanted, and there was nothing in the bylaws saying that what is now referred to as the death penalty was a permissible punishment. There’s no way the best team in the country would voluntarily sit out an entire season. But Byers had a plan to bypass Kentucky altogether. He called each individual school that was scheduled to play Kentucky with one demand: cancel your game, or else. It was all one giant bluff. The organization admitted to this years after the fact. But it was an effective bluff. Each school agreed, and Kentucky eventually gave in and accepted their punishment. It was the first time that the NCAA handed down a major punishment to a school. And because their power comes from the school’s willingness to be governed, it set a precedent that became the cornerstone of the NCAA. They were now the judge, jury, and executioner of college sports, and that genie could not be put back in the bottle, no matter how much the schools wanted to.
Next time, we’ll talk about another case that involves college basketball and the United States legal system. Where, again, the NCAA expanded its jurisdiction further and further away from the field.