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Published: Monday, 11/11/2002

Bitter medicine at U of M

In the convoluted world that is big-money college athletics, current University of Michigan basketball players, coaches, and fans will pay a severe penalty for past misdeeds of others in a player-payoff scandal. But those are the rules.

Mary Sue Coleman, U of M president, did what had to be done - forfeiting 113 victories, paying back $450,000 in tournament revenue, and forgoing post-season play this season - to finally exorcise the scandal, which stretches back a decade to the “Fab Five” glory days.

It was especially painful for Dr. Coleman, who has been at Michigan's helm barely three months. But, with no excuses, she rightly recognized that Friday's action was “a day of great shame for the university.”

Specifically, the shame is on those in the athletic department, including former coach Steve Fisher, who knew or should have known about the payoffs but looked the other way. And the shame falls on the players who sold out their school.

What we know now is that Ed Martin, a self-styled Michigan basketball booster from Detroit, gave a total of $616,000 to four Wolverine players - Chris Webber, leader of the fabled “Fab Five” squad in the early 1990s, and later, lesser stars Robert Traylor, Maurice Taylor, and Louis Bullock.

Some of the money went to the players' families, some for fancy SUVs and expensive clothes, which they flaunted on campus. It's a familiar story in college athletics, and it wouldn't have taken a U of M Law School grad to realize that something illegal was going on.

Unfortunately, the pressures to win at the highest level of college sports, where prestige and millions of dollars in revenue are at stake, are what lead to tacit toleration of player payoffs. It's obvious that even a school as prestigious as Michigan is not immune.

Players - admittedly a small number - take the money on the rationalization that, as student athletes, they're playing for free and should be getting something more tangible than the fans' cheers. A free college education and the opportunity to land multimillion-dollar professional contracts later apparently are not recompense enough.

The victories voluntarily forfeited by U of M encompass some of the university's greatest hoops feats of recent years - appearances in the NCAA Final Four in 1992 and 1993; the 1997 NIT title, and the 1998 Big Ten tournament championship.

Those wins are part of history, though, and can't be erased simply by removing the banners from Crisler Arena.

Though U of M has taken pre-emptive action, there is no guarantee that the self-imposed penalties are the end of the story. The NCAA could inflict further, even more painful, punishment, including scholarship reductions.

But by accepting responsibility for wrongdoing, even though it was committed by people long gone, U of M officials have set an example to be emulated in college athletics.



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