In Sliding Doors, a 1998 romantic comedy that I won’t pretend not to have seen multiple times, Gwyneth Paltrow plays Helen, a London PR exec who gets sacked from her job one day and drags herself home on the tube, arriving just in time to find her live-in boyfriend sexing up another gal. (You can tell it’s a British film because the other woman is a detestable American gorgon.) After the customary post-breakup devastation, Helen dusts herself off, gets a smart new bob in a salon-makeover montage scene, opens a successful business and (but of course) learns to love again. Triumph over adversity, people, with a glossy indie-pop soundtrack to match!
Or at least, that’s one version of what happens. (*cue minor-key string chords*) Using an alternate-reality storytelling device, the film also shows us how things play out if Helen had missed her train home and thus hadn’t caught her man with that good-for-nothing American bitch. Toggling between the two narratives in 10-minute increments, the movie depicts (more entertainingly than I’m making it sound) how apparently trivial turns of fate can have outsize consequences. You can tell which reality you’re watching by whether Paltrow’s wearing a bob. (All right, it’s not Casablanca, but I’m honestly not doing it justice.)
Fans of UCLA basketball are suffering through a little Sliding Doors moment of their own right now, wondering what might have been had recent events unfolded just a bit differently. The anguish, however, has nothing to do with romantic infidelity – relax, Mr. Pitino, this doesn’t concern you – but everything to do with a standardized test. The test in question is the SAT taken by Derrick Rose, by which I mean the SAT taken by a person who wrote “Derrick Rose” on top of the answer sheet but who was almost certainly someone else.
A Rose by Any Other… Eh, Never Mind
As a senior at Simeon Career Academy in Chicago, Rose was the nation’s third-ranked high school hoops prospect. In November 2006, he committed to play at the University of Memphis for noted sleaze-monster John Calipari. There was just one small problem, which became an increasingly large problem as Rose’s senior year drew to a close: he couldn’t get himself academically qualified to play college ball. No, not even at Memphis. That’s what happens when you whiff on the ACT three times out of three attempts.
In May 2007, though, someone purporting to be Derrick Rose sat for the SAT in Detroit (wait, what?) and earned a qualifying score. Here are a few reasons everyone involved should have immediately suspected fraud:
1. Over a short period of time, significant jumps in testing performance are wildly improbable.
2. It’s not against the law to take the SAT in Chicago.
3. No one who lives in Chicago would ever visit Detroit voluntarily.
I used to live in Chicago, and you could’ve been holding my family at gunpoint in Detroit, and I still wouldn’t have visited unless you covered my gas money and promised not to keep me there more than 20 minutes. But be of good cheer, Detroit: at least your blighted local economy is being propped up by an underground market for illicit test-taking services.
The stench of malfeasance eventually tickled the olfactory nerves of various educational bureaucrats, and after a series of investigations – including one by the Educational Testing Service that involved use of a forensic document examiner – the ETS canceled the score in May 2008. By that point, Rose had completed a full season with Memphis and declared his eligibility for the NBA draft. His play for Memphis was often spectacular, especially during a tournament run that ended in an overtime loss to Kansas in the national championship game.
As part of that tournament run, Derrick Rose discontinued UCLA’s season. The 2008 Bruins men’s basketball team, you may recall, was legitimately pretty awesome. They won 35 games and the Pac-10 regular season and tournament championships. They were the top seed in the NCAA tournament’s West Regional. Of their starting five, four are playing in the NBA, three were first-round picks, and two were top-five picks. Against Memphis, however, the Brus looked like fools of the highest order, overwhelmed by the Tigers’ slicing, dicing, more-than-sufficing attack en route to a 15-point loss. Rose was the best player on the court, finishing with 25 points, four assists, nine rebounds and only one turnover.
You’ll Be Shocked How Much This Didn’t Happen
That game sucked for UCLA fans. But hey – good news, courtesy of the NCAA’s compliance goons! Turns out the game never actually took place. What’s that? You remember watching it? You have the box score tattooed on your thigh like the dude in Memento? Sorry, but you’re obviously mistaken. You must be thinking of some other basketball game – maybe one played by your kids in the driveway? It might be easier if I just let the Committee on Infractions explain:
“Pursuant to NCAA Bylaw 184.108.40.206-(e)-(2), the institution [Ed.: that’s Memphis] shall vacate all wins in which student-athlete 1 [Rose] competed while ineligible during the 2007-08 men’s basketball regular season. Further, in accordance with NCAA Bylaws 220.127.116.11 and 18.104.22.168, the institution’s participation in the 2008 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship shall be vacated and any trophy awarded as a result of that ineligible participation shall be returned to the NCAA.”
That was the ruling issued last week on conclusion of the Committee’s investigation of this sordid affair. With just a few keystrokes and the posting of a PDF report, gone are all the victories accumulated by Memphis with Rose on the court, including the win over UCLA. Poof!
In the wake of the Committee’s ruling, UCLA fans have been nailing themselves to the cross. Many with whom I’ve spoken argue that UCLA should have had its shot at Kansas and, at worst, should be considered tournament runners-up. Jill Painter, who covers UCLA sports for the Los Angeles Daily News, wrote that Calipari “got away with a crime and doesn’t have to do any time. It’s schools like UCLA that suffer. Could UCLA have beaten Kansas for the championship? We’ll never know.”
The righteous outrage is understandable. The 2008 team was our best chance at hanging a 12th banner in Pauley Pavilion, and it would’ve been nice to face opponents whose best players hadn’t defrauded their way onto the team. It also would’ve been nice if the NCAA’s band of elite crimefighters hadn’t needed two full years to crack the case. To review: Rose failed three straight times to get a qualifying score, then somehow – defying the laws of probability – passed the SAT in Detroit. Getting to the bottom of this one didn’t mean consulting Scotland Yard or retasking spy satellites.
Don’t Believe the Truth
Does it follow, though, that Bruin fans are entitled to imagine, Sliding Doors-style, what might have happened in a title game against Kansas? Not really. In the Orwellian dreamworld of NCAA rules enforcement, vacating a win is not the same as declaring a forfeit. The latter would have reversed the outcome of UCLA-Memphis, taking the Bruins’ loss and deeming it a victory instead. The former… well, the former is confusing. Memphis’s win gets stricken from the historical record, but UCLA’s loss does not. There were, the NCAA is saying, only three teams at the Final Four that year. UCLA lost to no one.
If this isn’t making sense to you, welcome to college athletics. I hope you brought some Advil.
The NCAA’s practice of punishing infractions by win-vacancy is fundamentally incoherent; it’s genuinely hard to describe what the punishment means without sounding idiotic. One could argue that it’s simply the NCAA’s way of declaring that an institution cheated, but you don’t need vacancy to do that. You just need a PDF report that says, “They cheated.” Vacancy isn’t merely declaratory, but distortive. It’s taking an event that happened and ordering everyone to pretend that it didn’t.
In this regard the NCAA might want to give some thought to the company it’s keeping. Authoritarian manipulation of history is a pretty reliable indicator that (i) someone in power is embarrassed by sketchy shit that went down, and (ii) he or she isn’t up to the challenge of defending that sketchy shit in open, public discourse, so (iii) why not fall back on the exercise of power by fiat, effectively ruling that people should shut up about it and move on? Think Joseph Stalin having textbooks doctored to remove photographs of purged political rivals, or the Turkish government’s denial of post-World War I Armenian genocide.
Nearly awarding a national championship to a team that used an ineligible player doesn’t rank the NCAA among history’s greatest monsters, but you can see why they’d be a skosh embarrassed by it. The discomfort here is no doubt compounded by rules – set forth in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement but from which the NCAA benefits – indefensibly coercing the Derrick Roses of the world to provide a year’s worth of free labor to the college basketball industry in lieu of getting paid by a professional team, and thus creating incentives for student-athletes a bit marginal on the "student" part of that label to cheat. Vacating wins allows the NCAA to scrub the official record and strike a rectitudinous pose without acknowledging any complicity in the underlying crime.
Gravity’s Rainbow Jumper
More abstractly, it rattles the fault line that exists between Enlightenment philosophies of history and their postmodernist critics. Enlightenment values, which were ascendant in the profession of history toward the beginning of the 20th century, maintain that history has an objectively discernible nature – that through scientific observation we can accumulate a sound body of knowledge about past events. History, the argument goes, transcends theory and ideology; the past is observable and fixed.
Postmodernists, on the other hand – Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida most influentially – questioned our ability to read or write history in an objective fashion. They critiqued the notion of human beings as scientific, rational creatures and challenged the idea of historical absolutes. In Foucault’s view, history is mutable and subordinate to the Nietzschean will to power. It bends to political expediency in the hands of those who wield authority.
It’s unsettling that the NCAA goes so far out of its way to validate Foucouldian cynicism. By rewriting the historical record to reflect politically expedient fictions, it confirms the idea that human knowledge is contaminable. Even worse, it does so as a matter of stated policy. I don’t want to overstate the issue here – it’s just basketball, not Holocaust denial – but one would hope that an organization so closely affiliated with American higher education would endeavor not to assist in unwinding the Enlightenment.
As for UCLA fans: another shot at Banner 12 will come along soon enough. Remember the 2008 team for what it was, and not for what it might have become. Let the past bury its dead. And in the meantime, throw Sliding Doors on the ol’ Netflix queue. It’ll make you feel better, I promise.