September 2012 - Schooled by the NCAA

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

I was a prosecutor for 15 years at the beginning of my career. It was tougher then. Writing hadn’t yet been invented, and we had all those pesky dinosaurs to deal with.
My early mentors were less concerned with my appreciation of the music of the spheres than they were with my development of perspective. Maybe it was just because they figured I needed help with the basics more than my peers, but the lessons I was taught as a tyro prosecutor had a lot more to do with human beings—the care and handling of judges, jurors, court staff, victims, witnesses, and the defense bar—than they did with People v. Gazorninplat and whether a warrant was required to open a locked box in the trunk of a car that had been torched in a private parking garage, which had subsequently collapsed in an earthquake in which the car’s owner was killed.
They pretty much assumed I’d learned enough law in Berkeley to be able to try someone for disturbing the peace without bringing the American judicial system and the entire common law tradition crashing down around my ears. But they weren’t sure I yet knew how to interview a rape victim or identify with a 40-year-old career motorcycle officer. That concerned them.
The late Al Wells, a legendary Orange County prosecutor, once told me, “We don’t need the smartest guys in the class to do this job. We don’t need the law review types and the coifs. We don’t need rocket scientists. We need people with good judgment.”
I was 24 years old. I was so wet behind the ears you could have grown rice on my neck. “Al,” I asked him, “how do you get good judgment?”
And Al, who’d been a prosecutor since Caesar was a border guard, flashed that warm, avuncular smile and said, “By exercising bad judgment, Billy; that’s why God made misdemeanors.”
So we, greenhorns all, learned the rules of evidence and the complexities of human nature by trying misdemeanors. If you dropped the blood vial in a driving-under-the-influence case and watched it shatter on the floor—as actually happened to one of my contemporaries—you were not turning a puppy-raper loose on society. If you over-prosecuted a petty theft case, it was unlikely your mistake would change the earth’s rotational rate.
The idea was that you would do stupid things early in your career and learn from them how not to do stupid things later in your career. With that in mind, I find myself wondering who handled the NCAA’s investigation of Cal Tech.
That’s right. The NCAA went after Cal Tech.
Using Al Wells’ logic, I figure their case was handled by the last guy in the door. I figure it has to be the last person they hired to perform duties that do not routinely involve a bucket and a mop.
For those of you not numbered among the sporting cognoscenti, let me identify the parties here. The NCAA is the National Collegiate Athletic Association—the agency putatively responsible for managing college athletics.(1) In the drama I am about to describe to you, they will be played by Goliath.
Cal Tech is the California Institute of Technology. Cal Tech, along with MIT, is the premier scientific learning institution in America. This is where you go if you’re too smart for Harvard and Yale and Cal and Stanford. This is where Al Wells would have looked for rocket scientists if he had decided he needed them.
But as stellar as Cal Tech’s intellectual firepower is, their athletic record is . . . well, what’s the opposite of stellar? Troglodytic? Subterranean? God bless ’em, the Beavers(2) have raised losing to an art form. They will be played not by David, but by David’s third understudy’s mechanic.
How bad are the Beavs? Their baseball team has lost 237 straight games. 237 straight. These guys actually are more likely to find the Higgs boson than home plate.
I played on some pretty bad baseball teams in my day. I didn’t stop playing until I reached law school,(3) and the fact that these teams included me on their roster was a pretty good indicator they were familiar with a level of desperation not encountered by too many athletic programs. I played on teams so bad we didn’t need a bus: the other team sent limos to pick us up.
I experienced losing. I experienced losing streaks. But I never imagined it was even possible to lose 237 in a row. Seems like you’d win one or two by mistake.
But at Cal Tech, it’s not only possible, it’s something of a tradition. The water polo team once went nine years without a win. The basketball team went 310 consecutive games without a win, a 26-year streak that began in the mid-eighties and ended in 2011 with a one-point victory over Occidental.(4)
Which I think is both more remarkable and more admirable than any of the trophy-laden records posted by the schools we watch on national television every week. It’s college sport, for crying out loud. Mens sana in corpore sano, and all that. It should be about competing and having fun and building character—not grooming professional athletes.
Given my choice of having a beer with the quarterback of last year’s national championship football team or having one with the coach of a team that hasn’t won in a half-dozen years, I’ll pick the latter every time. He’s got something to teach me.
But the NCAA apparently has rookies in its enforcement department, just as Al Wells had them in the D. A.’s Office, and it needs misdemeanors for them to practice on. So it has announced sanctions against Cal Tech.
Really? These people win every time Halley’s Comet comes around, and you’re gonna sanction them? What in the world can you do to them? Take away their shoes?
Actually, that is a problem. When USC, a perennial sports powerhouse, was sanctioned a few years back, the NCAA took away some scholarships and banned them from post-season play.
Cal Tech has no athletic scholarships, and the only way they’re going to see post-season play is on their television sets—which the students build themselves.
Nonetheless, the NCAA has banned them from post-season play in 2013. This level of cerebration indicates to me that if they’d had jurisdiction, the NCAA would have banned Adam Sandler from Academy Award consideration, Richard Simmons from the Olympic Games, and me from appointment to The Hague.
This is precisely the kind of rookie judgment call Al Wells had in mind for young prosecutors. Those of you with young associates might want to consider farming them out to the NCAA for a year.
And what was the transgression that brought down the Battlin’ Beavs?(5) What was the crime that will end their dream of a Sugar Bowl appearance next season or a trip to the Final Four? What was the rule that eluded these people who have so completely mastered the arcane and esoteric(6) laws of physics?
Well, it seems Cal Tech students are allowed to sit in on classes for three weeks at the start of each term to help them decide which ones to take. If the class looks good, they sign up; if not, they take something else. Makes sense to me. And it means they’re gonna know three weeks more about something than they would have because they needed that time to decide not to take the class.
Brilliant! They’ve found a way to get students to take extra classes!
But in the eyes of the NCAA, that’s a no-no. According to the NCAA, they aren’t students for those three weeks. They haven’t signed up for courses. If you haven’t signed up for courses, you’re not a student. So all this time, Cal Tech has been going 0 for 100 with ringers!
And whoever occupies the lowest rung on the NCAA ladder decided Cal Tech needed to be punished for letting that academic decision cloud their athletic judgment. They are now officially on NCAA probation. Right along with the big boys: Alabama, Boise State, USC, and most colleges in Florida.
Thank you, NCAA. It’s been a long time since I got to hear Al Wells’ laugh. And now I can hear it quite clearly.

(1) I use the word “putatively” here because we all know the NCAA’s control over college athletics is a fiction. Television and Nike manage college athletics. Everyone else is irrelevant.
(2) Yep. Cal Tech Beavers.
(3) Actually, not even then, but that’s another embarrassing story, and I only have room for the one today.
(4) Sorry, Dick Luesebrink and other Oxy Tigers; I didn’t think I could leave that fact out.
(5) No, as far as I know, no one calls them that but me.
(6) Not to say nonsensical. So help me, the more I read about string theory and multi-dimensional physics, the more convinced I am these guys are just making stuff up.   

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.