Saturday, November 8, 1997
Are we being told crime pays?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ruben Patterson
Ruben Patterson is making restitution. He has returned the Nissan Maxima he couldn't have bought on his own credit, and is repaying the benefits he never earned at the University of Cincinnati.

Patterson is attempting to regain his eligibility as a Bearcat basketball player. Whether he should succeed is a judgment call.

Bob Goin thinks so. UC's new athletic director has petitioned the National Collegiate Athletic Association on Patterson's behalf, and claims restitution ought to be sufficient to wipe the player's slate clean.

''We've made him repay those extra benefits, so we're back to Point Zero,'' Goin said Friday. ''We ask that they (the NCAA) restore his eligibility. We think the punishment should fit the crime.'' Goin is doing what he's paid to do, which is to protect the interests of the UC athletic department. Patterson, as the leading returning scorer on Bob Huggins' basketball team, qualifies as a vital interest.

But there is something troubling about the thinking in Clifton these days. Patterson has made multiple violations of the NCAA rules and received extra benefits UC has appraised at $1,434. The attitude of the university administration is that if the player pays up, all should be forgiven.

Crime should not pay

Whatever happened to the premise that crime should not pay? A college athlete who receives substantial improper benefits should not be able to get back to Point Zero simply by requesting a bill. If restitution is all that is required of rules-breakers, it encourages athletes to cheat and take their chances at getting caught. This is a situation that calls for a stronger deterrent, or no rules at all.

Yet as things now stand, there is a good chance Patterson will be reinstated without significant sanctions. The NCAA is increasingly inclined to treat disciplinary cases with the ''No Harm, No Foul'' attitude typical of Big Ten basketball officials.

If you make good, it's not so bad.

''Generally, when a student-athlete receives an impermissible benefit, one of the first things we require is restitution of the benefits,'' said Carrie Doyle, director of NCAA Student-Athlete Reinstatement. ''From there, we try to determine the athlete's culpability. The higher the culpability, the higher level of conditions.''

Ruben Patterson has some culpability here, but it is probably not as high as his vertical leap. He accepted meals and lodging for work he failed to perform on campus. He made use of University facilities and services before he was technically entitled to them. He accepted free lodging and ran up the phone bill of one Bobby Carter, a ''representative of the University's athletic interests.'' Carter also co-signed Patterson's car loan.

None serious by themselves

Taken one by one, none of these violations sound all that serious. Yet the sum total is not trivial. Ruben Patterson would not be repaying $1,434 in extra benefits if he had been scrupulous in following the rules. (UC has calculated the extra benefits as follows: $700 for use of Carter's condo; $250 for phone calls; $443.75 for lodging at Dabney Hall; $146.25 for meals.)

Doyle declined to address the relative severity of Patterson's case Friday, referring me instead to the NCAA's web site where schools can examine case precedent to determine how hard they're likely to be hit for various infractions.

Two cases resolved last year may offer clues to Patterson's fate. In one, an unidentified female track athlete was withheld from two competitions after making 44 impermissible phone calls from the school's academic center. In another case, a Division I football player was withheld from three games after obtaining a car loan ''based on athletics reputation.''

Though it is unlikely the NCAA will return Ruben Patterson to Point Zero unscathed, the infractions unearthed thus far would not seem so serious as to imperil his playing time in March.

If he is punished, it probably won't be painful.