I believe that Ryan Boatright did nothing wrong. I believe that, on January 14, he should have suited up to play against Notre Dame in front of hundreds of friends and family. He should have played on January 18 against Cincinnati and on January 21 against Tennessee too. Though I wonder what the outcry would look like over this controversy if Boatright wasn’t trying to make his way out of a tough situation for his family to give it a better life (as The New York Times columnist Joe Nocera has so well presented), the fact is that he is being punished for something his mother did, not him. While the actions of family members are encompassed within the NCAA regulations on recruiting, it is my opinion that it is wrong.
Yet, this raises a bigger problem, which I as a UConn graduate and fan have had a difficult time wrapping my head around since this issue came to public attention. It seems as if UConn is regularly caught up in problems, unable to make it through a complete season unscathed by violations, arrests, and other news that only brings down the image of the basketball program, and university as a whole. Yes, Jim Calhoun is a tremendous coach, one who has literally built this program from the ground up, transformed the image and direction of the university as a whole, and has contributed in more positive ways to the development of many individuals, and an entire state, than perhaps anyone else I can name off the top of my head.
I’ve done no research for this before writing now, and am simply going by what I can remember in recent memory. Since I began following UConn basketball closely – which is also around the time UConn became a school on my list of possible colleges – scandal has run rampant. The laptop scandal of 2005-2006 involving AJ Price and Marcus Williams remains on everyone’s memory when discussing conduct issues with the program. The Jerome Dyson suspension in 2008, along with Doug Wiggins, for being caught with a bottle of vodka and cognac in a University parking lot, also comes to mind. Of course, there’s the Nate Miles saga which began in 2008, but came to attention in 2010 before ending in early 2011 with the suspension of Calhoun for three Big East regular season games, the firing of two assistant coaches, and the loss of what was seemingly a large basketball talent with very small common sense. Now, Boatright.
Again, don’t get me wrong. I am not grouping Ryan Boatright the individual with the likes of Price, Williams, Dyson, Wiggins, and Miles. I’m instead simply saying that like the five men just listed, Boatright is again involved – in some way – with controversy pertaining to the University of Connecticut and its basketball program. Also, this isn’t me endorsing the NCAA’s practices or investigative methods. It’s me saying that, whether or not we like it, the NCAA has rules and regulations to follow, and that UConn is developing an alarming track record of either dealing with individuals who surround themselves with others not respecting the rules, don’t respect them themselves, or fail to ensure compliance as a university. I’m all for winning games, but there is something to be said for winning the right way – for having a program to cheer for that you’re proud of.
What UConn basketball has become, it seems, is a program whose followers (like me) care more about winning than about doing it the right way. As an example – when the Boatright news came out at the beginning of the season concerning his first suspension from the team, I simply shrugged it off, assumed he had violated rules and would be gone for the rest of the season, and moved on. That was it. I didn’t give it a second thought. Sure, when I heard more about what he had been suspended for, and later that he had been sat out again for what seems to be an overzealous investigation by a questionable governing body stemming from tips derived by a non-credible source, I was up in arms. But isn’t it a problem that at first, I wasn’t (a) surprised about what I had heard? Shouldn’t it say something when I (b) expect some form of controversy or problem to arise over the course of a season? Perhaps more importantly, does that fact that most are seemingly okay with the things that have gone on before, so long as UConn gets to an Elite Eight or Final Four once every three years or so suggest that (c) even its most bright graduates struggle with quasi-blind loyalty to the school?
The best way for me to illustrate my feelings also affects my credibility as an impartial writer – it’s the fact that I am a fan of both UConn and Notre Dame. It’s well-known that my allegiance has always lied primarily with the Irish, having grown up in a Notre Dame house as my father went to the school for his law degree. Yet, recently, it’s also been well-established that UConn has been my rooting interest for men’s basketball. I can say that there are two reasons for that; one being that the team is perennially more exciting than Notre Dame, and the other being that it has been more successful. That is all I have cared about in determining which team gets most of my attention – excitement and success. It seems that these facets are also most important to the UConn basketball program itself.
This past football offseason, prior to the start of spring practice, Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd – arguably one of the top-2/3 receivers in the nation, was cited for drunk driving. I expected Floyd to be lost for the year, as when former Irish point guard Kyle McAlarney was expelled for drug possession before being reinstated at the school some time later. I was shocked, pleasantly at first, when I learned that Floyd would be back by the start of the football season despite the citation. Then, the pleasantness of having the team’s top offensive weapon around subsided, and I thought that something wasn’t right. Floyd should not have been playing this season. Right or wrong, the University holds itself to a higher standard and claims to treat all students – whether a wide receiver or last trumpet-player – the same. Allowing Floyd to come back and play right away this season was not the right thing, and it affected the way I think about the university, football program, and head coach Brian Kelly.
How does this relate to UConn? Well, I’d like to say that I wish that hearing something damning to our basketball program would give me the same pause. It doesn’t. I’d like to say that the University – one I pride myself on being a graduate of and take great interest in as it climbs the ranks of the nation’s best – should hold itself to the highest standard on all levels; academically, athletically, socially, etc. But it won’t, and it shouldn’t be expected to. The culture at UConn, within its basketball program, is different. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
To be honest, I think that is where the majority of the backlash from this Ryan Boatright situation stems from – that fact that for the first time in at least five years, fans of the program have a scandal on their hands that they can scream and shout “it’s not our fault, we didn’t do anything!” I’m one of those fans – as when I learned the “full story” surrounding the ordeal, I was so disappointed in the NCAA, felt so bad for Boatright and his teammates, and was quick to tell myself “that’s why we’ve lost to Cincinnati and Tennessee, because Ryan’s being wrongly held-out”. So while so many of UConn nation can agree that the NCAA’s ways need to change, that Ryan Boatright is seemingly an innocent victim of an act that his uneducated mother did, it’s important to recognize the underlying themes of the university’s basketball program over the last decade. It’s not just the actions it takes internally; it’s also the people and players it associates with.
No, Boatright does not seem to be at fault here. It’s completely fathomable that based on the way the NCAA governs its member schools, he may not be back with the Huskies this season, or maybe ever. Yet, if something is to come out of this, maybe it’s time that Jim Calhoun and the rest of the athletic administration reevaluate the ways it runs the program from the top down – from the inside out. The people it hires, the kids it deals with, the way it polices itself; all of these things are important to ensuring a clean program with values any graduate can cheer for.
Then again, if the Nate Miles case is any indication – one involving illegal recruiting practices, a sexual assault charge, and a subsequent suspension for the program’s legendary head coach – maybe it’s simply too much to expect.