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Ohio State case could set precedent for future program penalties

As soon as the news trickled out Tuesday that the NCAA's Committee on Infractions had dealt Ohio State a one-year postseason ban for its booster- and tattoo-related infractions, people began asking the obvious next question(s).

What does this mean for Miami? Oregon? Penn State? North Carolina? Or any other school currently awaiting NCAA sentencing?

The literal answer is: nothing. There are almost no guidelines the Committee must follow in determining the severity of its penalties; it isn't bound by past precedent when comparing one school's infractions with another; and its membership roster changes by year and even by case, meaning its rulings are inherently inconsistent and thereby impossible to predict.

It's also why so many people -- particularly in Los Angeles -- expressed varying degrees of outrage over the Committee's final judgment on Ohio State. After last year's Draconian verdict in the Reggie Bush case, in which Paul Dee and Co. hammered USC with a two-year bowl ban and 30 docked scholarships due primarily to extra benefits bestowed on a single athlete, anything short of public executions for Gordon Gee and Gene Smith would inevitably be viewed as a slap on the wrist. Dee's term on the Committee has since ended. When asked on a teleconference Tuesday about comparisons between the Ohio State and USC cases, SEC associate commissioner and Committee member Greg Sankey noted his term had not even yet begun at that time. We'll never know exactly why Dee's Committee came down so hard on USC, but the school's adversarial response likely played a big part. Whether or not that's fair is another matter entirely.

But what does this mean for Miami, Oregon, Penn State and North Carolina?

Well, it's possible the Ohio State case will replace USC as the new baseline for those cases. Personally, I think Tuesday's ruling was perfectly reasonable. Neither a one-year bowl nor nine docked scholarships will cripple the program, but preemptively rendering Urban Meyer's first team ineligible for the Big Ten title is no slap on the wrist, either. On top of the suspensions and coaching turmoil that doomed the Buckeyes to a 6-6 season this year, the program will have served two years in purgatory for the misdeeds of Jim Tressel, Terrelle Pryor and others.

While the NCAA loves to remind us that no two cases are the same, the Committee actually made two references in Tuesday's report that suggest otherwise. At one point, in discussing the "insider" status enjoyed by now-disassociated booster Bobby DiGeronimo (who paid several players $200 apiece for appearing at his charity event and hooked up some with unapproved short-term jobs), the report specifically references a 2003 case at Arkansas involving a similar figure. Later, the Committee writes that it considered issuing a multi-year ban but refrained "after weighing the aggravating factors and the overall seriousness of the case in light of other recent major infractions cases where a multiple year postseason was imposed."

So the Committee does look at past cases, then. And considering most of the same people who heard the Ohio State case will be hearing upcoming ones as well -- all current members' terms run through at least next September, some until 2013 or '14 -- surely they'll look at their own past rulings when issuing new ones, right?

Maybe, just maybe, we can take an educated stab at what they'll decide.

North Carolina: If any program's fans should be shaking after Tuesday's ruling, it's the Tar Heels'. UNC went before the Committee in October, and its verdict is expected shortly. When its Notice of Allegations came out this summer, fans hung their hopes for a lenient sentence on the following facts: 1) It avoided the dreaded Lack of Institutional Control charge, receiving Failure to Monitor instead; and 2) The school was proactive, suspending players itself as soon as allegations of misconduct arose prior to the 2010 season.

Well, Ohio State was also charged with Failure to Monitor. It self-reported every violation in Tuesday's report, preemptively fired Tressel, disassociated Pryor and DiGeronimo and self-imposed several penalties -- and still it got hit with a bowl ban. North Carolina should expect even worse, considering its case is wider in scope and involves two of the NCAA's biggest no-nos -- academic fraud and agent violations. I'd expect a two-year bowl ban and at least one docked scholarship for every player who received impermissible benefits or improper academic help.

Miami: It could be a year or more before this investigation concludes. From the beginning, Miami's fate would depend less on rogue booster Nevin Shapiro's misdeeds and more on how much culpability, if any, the NCAA pegs on school employees. Yahoo!'s original report contends that several assistant coaches steered recruits to Shapiro, and that Shapiro nearly came to blows with the program's compliance director in 2007, which sure seems like a red flag.

If any or all prove true, Miami is likely looking at USC-level sanctions. Remember, the NCAA hung that school based almost entirely on its belief that running backs coach Todd McNair knew of ex-con Lloyd Lake's relationship with Bush and didn't stop it. Shaprio also fits closely the profile of DiGeronimo in terms of his access to the program. The Committee faulted Ohio State for failing to more closely monitor DiGeronimo, and he's only accused of handing out a few hundred dollars to a handful of players, not eight years spent showering 72 athletes with benefits. And Miami, like Ohio State, is considered a repeat violator. There's no Jim Tressel smoking gun e-mail here that we know of, but if the NCAA determines even one staff member knew of Shapiro's activities and didn't do anything, Miami's penalties will go far beyond those of Ohio State's.

Oregon: This one's impossible to predict because there is no known precedent for the Willie Lyles saga. The Committee will likely determine that Oregon's payments for Lyles' recruiting services were inappropriate given his relationship with the program. He will be deemed an unofficial booster, one that helped the program recruit players like Lache Seastrunk. But will the Committee go so far as to say the school bought a recruit? I doubt it, but again, that's a guess.

Since it's a recruiting-related case, scholarship reductions for future classes wouldn't be surprising. But Oregon fans' biggest concern should be whether Chip Kelly or other staff members get hit with unethical conduct charges (and in turn, show-cause penalties like Tressel's). That would have more tangible consequences than a few docked scholarships.

Penn State: Despite President Mark Emmert's tersely worded letter following the Jerry Sandusky grand jury report, I don't believe the NCAA will ever follow through with a formal investigation into the school's institutional control, nor should it. It's too slippery a slope. All the schools above violated or may have violated specific bylaws regarding recruiting, eligibility and amateurism, issues with a direct impact on a sport's "level playing field." The Penn State scandal involves issues of enormous societal magnitude but has no impact whatsoever on actual athletic competitions.

Emmert's letter cited vague bylaws about unethical conduct (including the infamous 10.1 clause used against Tressel) in justifying a query, but if it's going to start investigating all manner of unethical conduct in athletic departments, the NCAA is going to have its hands full. Does a coach's DWI arrest like Missouri's Gary Pinkel merit a visit from investigators, too? What about the Kansas ticket-scalping scandal a couple years back that landed former athletic department employees in prison?

Some matters are better left for actual judges and juries. Their punishment options include far bigger deterrents than bowl bans and scholarship cuts.

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