The University of Louisville stripper scandal is going to come down to the word of a white man who earns $5 million a year to coach the school’s brand-name basketball team versus the word of a black woman who describes herself as an escort queen and supplied her own daughters to players as prostitutes.
So don’t expect Rick Pitino to get fired.
Louisville and the NCAA have known about Katina Powell’s allegations since August. Investigators for both entities have already read her book, Breaking Cardinal Rules, and are aware of the details about stripper and sex parties held in an on-campus dorm from 2010 to 2014 that are being corroborated by ex-players and recruits.
Yet Pitino is still coach and seems to have the support of his athletic director, school president, student body and a growing number of former players.
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Why? Because he is Rick Pitino, savior of Louisville basketball, winner of the 2013 national title, annual contender for the Final Four. He could be governor of Kentucky if he wanted to be.
In Pitino’s closet, next to his cream-colored suits and cardinal-colored handkerchiefs, are drawers full of plausible deniability. He can earnestly say he did not know about the parties occurring in the very dorm named after his late brother-in-law, Billy Minardi Hall, and sound believable.
Maybe he didn’t know. Maybe he didn’t want to know. Doesn’t matter. Under the terms of his contract with an institution of higher education and the rules of the NCAA, he is responsible. These rock-star coaches make even more millions giving speeches and writing autobiographies about leadership. Where was Pitino, the leader?
In any case, Pitino should have known. Or should have set standards that would have made such seamy practices unthinkable. It was his hand-picked assistant coach, his hand-picked team, his hand-picked recruits.
PASSING THE BLAME
Pitino is laying blame on Andre McGee, a former player who became a graduate assistant then director of basketball operations before leaving to be an assistant at Missouri-Kansas City last year.
Pitino said he didn’t know that McGee was wooing recruits — and the relatives and guardians accompanying them on campus visits — and entertaining players by essentially setting up a strip club in a dorm. Those who wanted sex could have sex in a side room with a dancer for $100 paid for by McGee, who also handed the players $1 bills to tip the women. Powell said McGee paid her $10,000 for about 20 “shows” over the course of four years, “giving them what, as Andre would say, no other college is giving them,” Powell said.
Pitino said he was unaware of the behavior that “almost got me sick to my stomach reading about it,” nor were his staff members, his trainers, his players, or his nephew, who lived in Minardi Hall.
Powell doesn’t grant him the benefit of the doubt.
“This is my theory,” she told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “Four years, a boatload of recruits, a boatload of dancers, loud music, alcohol, security, cameras, basketball players who came in at will, dancers, their dancers — their whole dance team, may I add, saw us in there — how could Rick not know?”
Powell, 42, is being called an attention-seeking, money-grubbing opportunist with no credibility. One of her daughters, Lindsay Powell, 24, told Outside the Lines she was paid to have sex with former point guard Russ Smith. Another daughter, Rod Ni Powell, 22, said she was paid to have sex with Montrezl Harrell when he was a recruit and player. Harrell denied it but other former recruits and players have confirmed Katina Powell’s account. Yes, Powell agrees the whole thing has an absurd flavor: “I couldn’t make this up if I wanted to.”
‘THIS DAY WOULD COME’
Powell said she kept phone records, texts and journals “because I knew this day would come and I knew that one day they would say, ‘She’s lying.’ ”
She said McGee felt “his job was on the line” if he didn’t sign recruits. When she asked him if Pitino knew what was going on, McGee replied, “He’s Rick. He knows about everything.”
Pick a scandal and the person in charge, typically a control freak, wasn’t as clueless as claimed, whether it was Richard Nixon, Catholic archbishops, Joe Paterno or the administrators at the University of Miami who accepted donations for nearly 10 years from booster Nevin Shapiro, who also liked to entertain athletes with strippers.
At Louisville, even the relatives bringing teenagers to campus were in on the action: “Hey, Uncle Joe, get a load of the extracurricular activities for student-athletes when they’re not busy writing term papers!”
At a luncheon with fans, Pitino said, “I don’t get the ‘why?’ ” implying that he doesn’t need any extra recruiting advantages. Among other self-serving comments, he said his program “will get through this the right way.” He previously survived his own personal sex scandal involving a woman at a booth in an Italian restaurant who was later convicted of blackmailing him. He will survive again.
Everybody is using everybody in this latest gross episode of college sports run amok. The victim? That’s hard to say when there are so many dishonorable characters. Maybe the victim is another university, embarrassed and besmirched in the desperate race to be No. 1.