LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 04: Rick Pitino the Head Coach of the Louisville Cardinals gives instructions to his team during the Big East Conference game against the Seton Hall Pirates at Freedom Hall on March 4, 2009 in Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville won 95-78. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rick Pitino
He didn’t kill anyone. Didn’t steal millions from clients (only the Celtics). Didn’t pump himself full of hard dope. Didn’t harm a child, or his boss, or run over a pedestrian or go Michael Vick on the house pooch, things that will get you in trouble these days.
Rick Pitino messed around, he admitted, with a woman who wasn’t his wife.
So how much trouble should that fetch him? If any?
Well, this is clear: The sordid and strange drama involving Pitino and what he ordered for dessert at a restaurant will forever change the public image of one of the country’s premier college basketball coaches. The coach who won a national title and turned around big-time programs is not walking through that door anymore. The guy known for his Brioni suits and manicured follicles and New Yawkese charm and up-tempo teams is now a cheating bum who got busy with a woman at a restaurant. That’s low. In the minds of us who are easily offended, he goes from Slick Rick to Sick Rick.
Of course, the only person on Earth with something at stake here is Mrs. Pitino, who’s now free to kick her husband out of the house and, if she chooses, in that spot where it hurts. That’s usually forgotten when we’re presented with these moral episodes involving famous people. Sure, society might be repulsed to a degree, but the real damage here is confined to the family and especially the spouse who must deal with something he/she never caused.
But there’s a twist in this particular case. If some rock star or rapper did what Pitino is alleged to have done, then his cred actually goes up a notch. He’ll probably get a few back slaps, some high fives and might even sell more CDs. That’s the way it goes in pop culture, where such behavior is rarely held against him by the public. If nothing else, it’s what we’ve come to expect.
Same goes for plenty of others among the less famous. Hey, it happens. Forgive and move on.
Pitino, though, is a leader of impressionable young men who take their cue from the important adults in their lives. Like, their basketball coach.
Therefore: Shouldn’t his job be on the line here?
Strictly from a contractual standpoint, Louisville is asking itself that same question right now. As they brace for the vortex of reaction from within and beyond campus, school officials are weighing whether Pitino committed an act of “moral depravity” or engaged in “willful misconduct” or did something that “greatly” offended the public. That’s the legalese in the morals clause of his contract.
Of course, there’s another way to interpret the jargon: Is he winning enough games? That’s what, you know, it always comes down to in most cases in sports, and this one’s no different.
That doesn’t make it right, but in big-time sports where winning is placed above all, doesn’t make it wrong, either.
Yes, Pitino committed crimes against morality, but his job is to win games. He wasn’t hired to be a monk. He was hired to beat Kentucky.
His players, no doubt, received the wrong message from their coach in his admitted affair with Karen Sypher after-hours at a restaurant, yet Pitino was hired to teach them about chemistry, not anatomy. His players should have their moral compasses adjusted by their parents and their church, not a coach who’ll only be in their lives for three or four years. Although Pitino does have a responsibility to serve as a role model to his players, sleeping around doesn’t have much legal ground to stand on, in terms of termination. Trust me: Plenty of coaches have done this; most just were lucky enough not to get caught or, in Pitino’s case, leveled by a possible extortion attempt. If sports fired all the domestic cheaters among coaches, half the benches in basketball would be patrolled by men wearing not suits, but clerical collars.
Again: That’s not right, not wrong.
Pitino must be fired if his moral lapse leads to a job performance lapse. That’s fair game. That’s where Louisville would have every right to cut the cord, and there’s a chance this may happen. The grief Pitino will get on the road, especially in Lexington, could be unrelenting. That kind of verbal abuse would affect anyone. Even more, you wonder how this harms recruiting. How much ammunition did Pitino just give to rival coaches, who follow no rules when it comes to sliming the competition in the slimy recruiting game? Will parents with strong convictions steer their kids away from Louisville? What about the image of the program? This is when the Pitino episode will be worth watching, instead of now, when you can’t even hear the squeaks of sneakers in the gym yet.
You could almost see what came next. Pitino called a press conference, apologized to his family, players and the university, and now the school will take a wait-and-see approach with the public.
And the locals will be in a forgiving mood as long as Louisville gets to the tourney and wins a few games once there, because basketball does that to people in those parts.
It all comes down to winning, once again in the sports bubble, which is insulated from the real world. Pitino might be 0-1 right now at home, his home, but he’d better turn it around by November.