East: Southern was in error, but its athletes should be spared

Talk about March madness.

The Southern men’s and women’s basketball teams have been the pace-setters in the Southwestern Athletic Conference all season long. They’re both in first place with five games left in the regular season, but they might have to sit out the conference tournament in 2½ weeks and miss out on a chance to play in the NCAA tournament.

Every Jaguars team is indefinitely banned from postseason play because a routine review of data supplied by the university to the NCAA included a great deal of “unusable data” regarding student-athletes’ academic performance dating to 2009.

Let’s stipulate one important fact right away: Southern messed up badly in failing to keep and provide the NCAA with the data that the university is responsible for producing regularly.

Few responsibilities at an institution of higher learning are as important as the sanctity of students’ academic records. Jeopardizing student-athletes’ eligibility isn’t cool either.

But let’s also understand the difference between right and wrong, innocence and guilt, justice and wrongly applied punishment.

The people responsible for Southern’s shortcomings are no longer in position to be responsible for cleaning up the mess. That enormous challenge has fallen to Chancellor James Llorens, Athletic Director William Broussard and a campus-wide task force that has been working overtime since December to accumulate the paperwork necessary to dot every I and cross every T to the NCAA’s satisfaction.

Southern has an obligation to right its wrong and more importantly, put in place a system and a team of administrators that will ensure everything is done by the book moving forward.

By all accounts, the university is in the process of doing just that as teams watch the calendar to see whether their postseason hopes will vanish.

The women’s track team won’t be in Birmingham, Ala., this weekend for the SWAC indoor meet, and the basketball teams have no idea if they’ll be in Houston next month for their tournaments — even though the results on the court suggest they should be the first teams booked into that tournament.

Men’s coach Roman Banks sat in his office this week, reflecting on the challenge of not only preparing his team to continue winning, but simultaneously trying to reassure potential recruits that this mess will be cleared up before they would ever be affected, not to mention convincing underclassmen not to transfer and become immediately eligible at another school because of the sanctions at Southern.

Banks said he has been bolstered by support and encouragement from former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown, as outspoken a critic of the NCAA as there has been.

Brown said the postseason ban is merely the latest example of the “stupidity” and “ignorance” of many NCAA rules.

“Only violators of the rules should be punished,” Brown said, reasonably enough.

Southern is responsible for the lack of usable data, and Southern is responsible for fixing it. And, if penalties are warranted, they should be applied to Southern — not to the coaches and student-athletes who aren’t responsible for them.

“There has got to be a better way,” Brown said. “Find out who was involved and put them on probation.”

Brown, whose success as the winningest basketball coach in LSU history was based as much on his ability to motivate student-athletes as his ability to draw X’s and O’s, paused when asked what message he would deliver to the Jaguars players under these inarguably unfair circumstances.

“I’d tell them there are 7 billion people on Earth,” Brown said. “Adversity will visit each one of them, but it will only visit the strong. It will stay only with the weak.”

If a bunch of college students are strong enough to overcome blatant unfairness and play like champions amid the realization that they may well be denied the opportunity to reap the rewards they should be entitled to, surely the folks at the NCAA can figure out a way to overcome their own bureaucracy and do what’s right.