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On the NCAA, amateurism, and enforcement

August 26, 2011

Between Nevin Shapiro at the University of Miami, Bruce Pearl at Tennessee, and Jim Tressel at Ohio State, there’s been a lot of recent discussion about what’s wrong with college athletics. Unfortunately, there often seems to be a tendency to blame the players and boosters, while handing the coach a slap on the wrist and letting the athletic department and school as a whole off scot-free. That’s absolutely backward, but there’s a broad systemic reason for it.

First, consider who is held responsible, who should be held responsible, and how punishments are handed down. In most violations three parties are involved: student-athletes (to use the NCAA’s term), university representatives (coaches, administrators, etc.), and boosters/agents.

Boosters and agents have no responsibility to the NCAA, and under the current state of affairs, have little incentive to abide by the NCAA’s rules. Consider Nevin Shapiro. I think it’s probably safe to say that if Shapiro’s Ponzi scheme hadn’t collapsed, landing him in a federal penitentiary, he would never have said a word about the goings-on in Coral Gables, would have continued in his previous course, and we’d all still be hearing rumors about “the U” instead of concrete allegations.

Student-athletes, while they have a responsibility to follow the NCAA’s rules, can’t and shouldn’t necessarily be trusted to do so, for a number of reasons. First, remember that these are 18- to 22-year-olds we’re talking about. I’m sure you did some things you shouldn’t have at that age — I’m sure I did too — and it’s unrealistic to expect athletes to have better decision-making abilities than other people of the same age. In fact, despite the omnipresent reports about partying, alcohol, drugs, etc., I suspect that student-athletes are, on average, better decision-makers than most college students, particularly when you consider the almost-constant temptations placed in front of them by the aforementioned boosters, agents, and others.

Also, there is a certain portion of student-athletes, particularly at schools like Miami, Tennessee, and Ohio State, that is really only in school until they can go pro. I have no problem with this — it’s unfair to blame students when they’re just dealing with the system in place for football and basketball — but it means they may not always have the same interests as the NCAA. I think Reggie Bush was a prime example of this: he was clearly bound for the NFL, and didn’t really care what damage he did to Southern California along the way. Finally, there is the case of students for whom athletics is a way out of poverty, and who want or need to help their family as soon as possible. Although he managed to stay clean (as far as we know, anyway), Eric Bledsoe at Kentucky is an example here. As a high school senior, Bledsoe had the following comment:

I worry about getting to the next level. It’s been tough growing up. I love my mom and I’d do anything to help make her life better.

The third set of involved parties are the university representatives. This is where most of the responsibility lies, and hence, where most punishments should target. These are the coaches and compliance officers whose job it is to keep things clean. These are also the athletic directors who oversee the whole thing. These are adults, who are paid (often quite well) to follow the NCAA’s rules. They’ve chosen to work in collegiate athletics, rather than a professional league.

I think the NCAA needs to get a lot tougher here, especially when there’s clearly a willful violation (as in the case of Pearl, and as alleged at Miami) and especially when it relates to recruiting (as in both of those cases). I tend to think the current levels of penalties are generally OK for things like practice violations (Michigan football, EMU women’s basketball) and where there appears to be a one-off amateurism violation (Marcus Camby at Massachusetts). Regarding cases like Miami (if the allegations are true), I agree with something Matt Hinton (“Dr Saturday”) recently wrote:

But if the death penalty is in the bylaws, it must be on the table here. Practically speaking, if this isn’t a death penalty case, then the death penalty no longer exists.

When a coach knowingly and willfully violates a rule, and then lies about it, as Bruce Pearl plainly did, and particularly when, as in this case, it’s a repeat offense, it is clear that the coach has contempt for the NCAA’s rules. I think the appropriate response is at least a four-year show-cause and a six-year recruiting ban, and an unambiguous statement that if it happens again, it will be a show-cause and a recruiting ban for life.

Likewise, the NCAA needs to come down hard on the administrators who allow this sort of repeat offense to happen. Tennessee knew — or should have known — about Pearl’s recruiting violations at Milwaukee, and to stand by, and even defend Pearl, while the same thing happened again is unacceptable. Ditto for Miami athletic director Paul Dee, whose thirteen years in that position encompassed two very similar football scandals. Dee has shown that he is unwilling or unable to run a clean athletic department, and he should have a lifetime ban from any involvement with anything to do with the NCAA. Dee has been raked over the coals — rightly so — and is widely considered the biggest hypocrite in sports. Dee’s comments regarding Reggie Bush, that “high-profile athletes demand high-profile compliance”, have come back to bite him hard, and his recent remark that “We didn’t have any suspicion that [Shapiro] was doing anything like this. He didn’t do anything to cause concern” has made him the laughingstock of college athletics.

The problem in all of these cases is that the NCAA is trying to have it both ways. It really is all about money, except when the players are involved, and then it’s all about student-athletes and preserving the integrity of the amateur game. Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins recently commented on this, though it seems that most people were so impressed with his speaking abilities that they didn’t really listen to what he had to say:

It becomes a complicated issue, because so many of the decisions being made are about money. Yet the theme of the whole concept is not about money. It’s sort of a two-sided issue where you’re talking out of two sides of your mouth. You’re trying to make it about money, but you’re trying to make it not about money.

As long as it’s about money, even in part, programs like Miami, Southern California, Ohio State, Auburn, Alabama, etc. are going to tend to get lighter penalties than they might otherwise deserve.

Ponder this: in the last decade the NCAA has given the “death penalty” to two programs. If you’re having trouble remembering those cases, you’re not alone; they were a Division II men’s soccer team and a Division III men’s tennis team.

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