Anyone in tune with the All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten mind-set already grasps the operative principle behind last week’s resignation of Charles Davis as an assistant coach of Vanderbilt’s men’s basketball team: When a few kids misbehave, the whole class stays in at recess.
In the end, though, the most appropriate lesson here might stem not from preschool but the preachments of law-and-order tub-thumpers. The Davis case is actually a compelling argument for the wider application of the death penaltyas applied by the NCAA, that is. Bear with me here.
In case you haven’t followed his career, Davis is neither a misbehaver nor deserving of penalties. He has been named one of the Top 10 Young Men in America by the National Junior Chamber of Commerce. More important, at a time when many professional athletes shun any responsibility for civic or moral leadership, Davis has served as a role model throughout the community.
Since the end of his NBA days, he has devoted much of his energies and his financial resources to the Charles Davis Foundation, which he established to work with kids growing up, as he did, in the inner city.
And there lies the root of Davis’ dilemma. He may be making an exceptional contribution to Nashville, but he can’t be granted an exception to rules that were aimed primarily at restricting others.
Davis’ ongoing work with the foundation gnawed into the time he could devote to coaching at Vanderbilt, his alma mater. Vanderbilt, understandably, wants to have a full-time assistant coach for what is already more than a full-time responsibility.
The NCAA, meanwhile, which decrees all and sees some from its Kansas headquarters, strictly limits the direct contact coaches may have with athletes once they reach ninth grade. With experience on their side, they’re concerned that some colleges might use such contacts to gain an advantage in the Hobbesian realm of recruiting. And they’re especially touchy about allowing coaches and athletes even to wave hi to each other in athletic situations. Thus, it’s tough for Coach Davis to continue leading the summer basketball camps around which his foundation was builtor to take a hands-on role in the foundation’s other programs.
The rules regarding contacts were part of the NCAA canon two years ago, when Davis joined Jan van Breda Kolff’s staff. But, says Vandy assistant Ron Bargatze, who has known Davis since he recruited him from McGavock High School to play for the Commodores nearly 20 years ago, “there were some pre-existing things Charles was involved with [namely, the foundation], and I think the NCAA gave some special considerations because of that. [When it came to interpreting the rules], we probably received a lot of benefit of the doubt.”
This summer, though, Vanderbilt asked the NCAA to clarify its rulings about coach-player contacts. “We got a letter back that said, ‘This is the way it’s gotta be,’ says Bargatze. “Based on that, Charles was going to have to cut back too much on foundation activities.”
So when van Breda Kolff pressed him last week to choose either coaching or philanthropy, Davis made what he considered an easy decision. He gave up coaching.
Undoubtedly, he is correct in believing that he can do more good through his foundation than through his position as an assistant coach. Vanderbilt’s lossan enormous one, given Davis’ community service and the university’s desire to shed its reputation for smug insularityis Middle Tennessee’s gain.
Even more ironically, the NCAA’s rules helped drive from collegiate athletics the very type of person who could serve it bestsomeone who has demonstrated that his bottom line involves helping young people more than helping his school reap W’s.
Davis’ departure occurs at a time when college athletics desperately needs an infusion of integrity. In the coming weeks, you’ll hear more and more about an operative in Florida who allegedly steered high school prospects to Georgia along a trail of cash. Just last week, Auburn copped a plea for greasing the way on behalf of two junior college players. One of them, Moochie Norris, serenely entered the NBA last week, far removed from the sanctions that will affect his innocent former teammates.
Whenever someone like Davis bows out, college basketball is left more firmly in the hands of the Jerry Tarkanians and the Eddie Suttons, both of whom are now thriving after stints in coaching purgatory. Instead of using camps to help school kids, many coaches view them primarily as shopping opportunities, venues for evaluating talent.
It would be easy to blame Davis’ forced exit from coaching on the myopia of NCAA pointyheads, who have shown themselves capable of stupefying imbecility in the past. (Only this year, they decreed that star tailback Darnell Autry, a drama major at Northwestern, could not pursue his academic studies by acting in a play, since the theatergoers were charged admissionand since student-athletes are prohibited from taking part in money-making ventures.)
Yet, in this case, the governing body’s decision, while highly ironic, is not utterly moronic. This is the part you learned in kindergarten. “You and I pay higher prices at the grocery store because there are a few people in there stealing from them,” says Bargatze.
“I don’t know how [the NCAA] can make exceptions. If you do, the floodgates open. If [Charles] were allowed to do it, you’d find people coming up with things you wouldn’t believe to circumvent the rules. If you have a rule, you have to stick by it.”
“You balance two different types of concerns hereproviding a positive role model to kids and the potential to gain a recruiting advantage with kids,” says Steve Mallonnee, the NCAA’s director of legislative services. “The association a couple of years ago considered sponsoring legislation that would allow coaches to have these kinds of contacts but ultimately decided against it because of the potential for abuse. You have a lot of these rules because one or two coaches abused it and used it as a way to recruit.”
Nonetheless, it might be interesting to see what would happen if the NCAA applied the philosophy of Gov. Don and the National Rifle Association, favoring draconian individual punishment over general prohibition. Specifically, resorting to the “death penalty”the equivalent, in its effect on scofflaw programs, of dropping a hydrogen bombmight prove to be a salubrious tonic.
Unlike its penal-system counterpart, the NCAA’s death penalty is intended to be rehabilitative. It is a fearsome weapon to strike rule-breaking coaches and cash-doling boosters where it hurts, barring the offender from even fielding a team.
Intended as a last resort against schools that qualify for probation twice in a five-year span, the death penalty has been imposed only once, though others have certainly met the criteria. On that one occasion, the sanction worked beautifully. It liberated SMU’s athletic program from the control of football coaches, an athletic director, and even trustees who would literally pay any price to win. (A six-figure trust fund they established for one recruit comes to mind.) SMU has never fielded a winning football team since then. But its sports program today sparkles with Ivy League cleanliness; it’s back in proportion with the rest of the university.
For his part, Davis has no regrets, except that he says he’ll miss working with the kids at Vanderbilt. But now he can focus solely on the other kids, in the inner city, to whom he has dedicated himself. “You only have one chance, when you’re a youngster, to follow in the right footsteps, to get an education,” he says. “Basketball is going to be there year after year.
“The other day a kid from the [Charles Davis] Learning Center came up to me and said, ‘My mother said you gave up your job for me. I want to thank you for it.’ That made it for me. That’s what it’s all about.”