Rabalais: It’s clear — Southern has failed its athletes

Southern’s winter sports programs have been banned from NCAA championship competition because of missing and unusable academic data pertaining to its student-athletes.

In other words, the NCAA has no way to properly verify their grades and academic progress.

There is an easy way to grade Southern University on this subject, though.

A big, fat “F.” Underlined. Inside a red circle.

One is tempted to label Southern’s academic compliance grade incomplete, given the Swiss-cheese state of the academic records of its student-athletes.

But that would be being kind when kindness is not deserved.

This is a failure, utter, pure and simple, going back years and years, on the part of people at a university who were employed in part to keep the records straight so Southern student-athletes would be allowed to play and represent their school if they were eligible.

This is so bad that Grambling, which suffered through an embarrassing player boycott of a game at Jackson State last season in protest of poor conditions in and around the football program, is now off the clock.

It would be bad under any circumstance. The fact that the Southern men’s and women’s basketball teams are at the top of the Southwestern Athletic Conference standings — many of the Southern men’s players being the same Jaguars who nearly pulled an epic stunner against No. 1 seed Gonzaga in last year’s NCAA tournament — makes it even worse.

Look, many college athletic programs are financially strapped. That was a contributing factor at Southern, in a similar case of academic compliance issues last year at Southeastern Louisiana, and in the shoddy conditions that led Grambling’s football players to say “enough.”

What happened at Southern, and to the current student-athletes on its men’s and women’s basketball teams and bowling team, should NEVER happen anywhere. It does, but as an NCAA spokesperson told The Advocate recently, such failure of academic record-keeping is extremely rare. A school is compelled to find a way.

And it continues to be an issue for Southern. To their credit, officials at the school worked long and hard to meet a series of NCAA-imposed deadlines to try to stave off the postseason bans for Southern’s basketball and bowling teams.

But even some of the academic information the school shipped to the NCAA since learning in December of the potential postseason bans was shoddy and incomplete.

On a personal level, it gives me no pleasure to slam Southern this way.

I covered Southern athletics for two years back in my younger days. One of those years, the go-go faster years under former coach Ben Jobe, the Jaguars led the NCAA in scoring at 104.4 points per game (1990-91). They were a sight to behold and a career highlight for me personally. And Southern athletics will always have a warm spot in this sportswriter’s heart for the amazing things I’ve covered and people I’ve met watching and writing about the Jaguars.

But incompetence on this level remains inexcusable. It deserves the harshest criticism.

Where does Southern go from here? The NCAA, which should penalize the school money and/or scholarships instead of its current players (but that’s another column), decided Saturday to throw a crumb of compassion toward SU’s basketball teams and allow them to play later this month in the SWAC tournaments in Houston.

If it weren’t for ineligible teams, the SWAC would barely have any tournaments. Four of its 10 schools — Southern, Grambling, Mississippi Valley State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff — are facing NCAA postseason bans, the latter three for more garden-variety Academic Progress Rate (APR) issues. Apparently the eligible teams that advance the farthest in the tournaments will earn the SWAC’s NCAA tickets.

What a state of affairs.

So, Southern’s men and women will go to Houston and compete for what typically are trophies tied to automatic NCAA bids but this year for them are simply empty cups. Amazingly, the SU men and women have performed this entire season at a championship-caliber level despite knowing it could all be snatched away from them in the end. Not because they might lose a conference tournament game, pressure every team in one-qualifier leagues like the SWAC faces annually. But because someone, grown ups sitting in offices who are supposed to have their backs while they pour their sweat out on the court, didn’t do their jobs.

How does this end for Southern? Theoretically, as long as the student-athletes whose academic records are in question are still competing in the blue and gold, it won’t. But one assumes the NCAA will eventually broker some sort of probationary deal with the school and essentially allow Southern and its incoming student-athletes start fresh this fall.

There will eventually be that amount of closure, but for the Southern men and women who were failed by their school, closure will be as hollow as the SWAC tournament titles they’ll play for this March.