IF YOU remember anything about Louisville's 2013 national championship, it's probably the player who spent the Final Four behind the Cardinals' bench with his right leg elevated and wrapped, a sympathetic star born of catastrophe. A week earlier, to national horror, sophomore guard Kevin Ware's tibia had snapped and pierced through his skin as he defended a three against Duke, turning him into an inspirational figure for Louisville's title run. In his story on the 82--76 TITLE VICTORY over Michigan, SI senior writer Luke Winn illuminated the brotherhood among those Cardinals, with anecdotes about group-text high jinks and Ware's adopted puppy named Scar.
But nearly five years later the story of that championship season is far less endearing. Last month the NCAA upheld a previous ruling, forcing Louisville to vacate its wins from 2011--12 through '14--15, including its '13 title, as part of sanctions for violations relating to former staffer Andre McGee, who hired escorts to have sex with recruits. It marked the first time a Division I basketball championship had been stripped and came five months after Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino was fired over a separate recruiting scandal.
The steady stream of news about recruiting or academic malfeasance has given feel-good narratives in major college sports a sense of tenuousness. (In recent weeks revelations from an FBI investigation have implicated high-profile players from several schols for taking thousands from a former agent.) However you may feel about paying student-athletes, what happened at Louisville from 2010 through '14, during which much of that championship team was assembled, is inexcusable. According to the NCAA's findings, four of the recruits with whom the escorts engaged in sex acts were underage. One 16-year-old recalled McGee handing him a condom and telling him to wait in an upstairs room until a woman was sent there. When appealing the initial findings last summer, Louisville argued for reduced penalties because of the escorts' low cost.
As Winn wrote, there was much about the Cardinals and that game worth celebrating: point guard Peyton Siva, who had helped his father battle a crystal meth addiction; forward Luke Hancock playing the game of his life in front of his ailing dad, who would succumb to cancer two months later; the way a group of young men responded to a moment of heightened meaning. But all discussion of that 2013 team will now be tinged with some degree of shame or judgment. It's no longer about the players, who rallied for their gruesomely injured teammate to win a national title. It's now also about the team forced to vacate one.
That process is underway. The banner came down from the KFC Yum! Center just three hours after the NCAA's ruling was announced, and the university will return revenue from its tournament runs from 2012 through '15. But there is no real way to erase a championship in sports. We all saw that team win in Atlanta. Pitino will still have his commemorative back tattoo, and the players, as a defiant Ware tweeted, "Still got this fat ass ring."
The question is whether anyone else can see its shine.