February for college basketball usually involves chatter about March Madness and which of the most competitive programs received the highest poll ranking. This has not been the case for Binghamton University.
Instead of heated discussions about the basketball team's rank, the institution has found itself pummeled by reports about how far the school went to compromise its academic prestige for the sake of competing in Division I NCAA basketball.
Last week, a report from a four-month investigation went into great depth about the practices of university administrators, athletic personnel, student-athletes and professors who have put a damper on Binghamton's reputation. The investigation consisted of more than 80 interviews and a close review of thousands of e-mails, text messages and other documents.
Binghamton's basketball story began in 2001 when university president Lois B. DeFleur and athletic director Joel Thirer aggressively moved to bring Binghamton a Division I ranking. They strove to revive the basketball program and increase its national competitiveness. This included, among other things, the construction of a $33 million arena and later the firing of the team's head coach, Al Walker, and hiring of Kevin Broadus, a former assistant coach from Georgetown University, in 2007.
To the average fan of college basketball it would have appeared as though Binghamton had made all the right moves. The team rose to the occasion last season when it received a bid to the NCAA tournament. This was a huge accomplishment for the university and probably marked the peak of its basketball program. The rest has been a downward spiral.
This past fall, the team dealt with the arrest of its guard Emanuel Mayben on charges of possession and sale of crack cocaine. Six more players were later dismissed from the team for reasons ranging from drug possession to buying items on a stolen credit card.
Usually when stories come up about problem players they involve one, two or maybe three members of the team. It is rare to hear of a single team dropping so many players in such an isolated time frame. The Binghamton roster has declined and has done so quickly. One player, Malik Alvin, was even arrested on charges of stealing condoms from a Wal-Mart. He then proceeded to engage in a text-message conversation with assistant coach Marc Hsu about providing money for the court fine — desperate and embarrassing.
One report from The New York Times stated Binghamton had admitted one player to the university with a record of arrest while other admitted transfer players came to the university with questionable coursework, having limited, if any, academic content. And DeFleur's response to these accounts was that the university was undergoing an "experiment" and the lowering of admissions standards was done to improve campus diversity, according to the report.
Even someone not acclimated with college admissions or administration practices should know an institution can achieve a high level of diversity without admitting students with questionable academic and criminal records. The diversity card appears to be the administration's attempt at covering up its conflicted priorities. That same person would be able to discern that text messages between players and coaches about court-fine payments are unethical as well.
There were also numerous instances when Binghamton professors felt pressured to pass players who should have otherwise failed. One professor, Sally Dear, spoke to an ESPN reporter about the accommodations she has had to make for basketball players in her class, which she described as unethical and very likely to be illegal.
The argument about the importance of athletics versus academics is not novel — it frequently surfaces in competitive high school and collegiate play. Binghamton's case sets itself apart because of how far almost every area of the university bended its ethics for the sake of ensuring the team's success at the Division I level.
It may not have been the intent of DeFleur and others involved to let this situation get so out of hand, but no persuasive argument can be made that they made it stop either. Broadus could have been more selective in his recruiting process. DeFleur could have audited those admitted more carefully. Professors could have stood their ground.
There are plenty of could haves, would haves and should haves to go around. Now that DeFleur will "retire" in July and Broadus remains on leave, the university must come together and realign its priorities as they relate to both academics and athletics.
If these practices continue, Binghamton stands to lose all that it has worked so hard to achieve — its reputable academic programs within the SUNY system and its competitive athletics. There is too much to lose if the university does not act soon and act boldly.
Contact staff writer Jessie Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org