I'm choosing to be optimistic about the NCAA today. You're accustomed to seeing criticism of college sports' governing body in this space, and since the NCAA did something important today, you're probably expecting me to pull out the knives. Not today. For once, I'm going to be kinder and gentler toward the NCAA. I'm going to give the governing body -- which is governed by the schools themselves, most of the time -- the benefit of the doubt.
Anyone with common sense knows a lot of the NCAA's rules are silly. The world wouldn't implode if the premium athletes who help bring in the money that funds coaches' salaries and facilities and scholarships that benefit less marketable fellow athletes could share in the largesse of the multibillion dollar businesses that are big-time college football and big-time men's college basketball, but the NCAA doesn't see it that way. That's fine. But if the NCAA is going to have these silly rules, it should actually enforce them. Beyond that, it should enforce them evenly and consistently.
Which brings us to Tuesday's news. The NCAA Division I Board of Directors adopted new policies that offer stiffer penalties for more serious violations, softer penalties for violations that aren't as serious and -- most importantly -- a proviso that holds millionaire head coaches accountable for broken rules instead of allowing them to sacrifice assistants to save their own skins. Also, the new policy will hopefully speed up the often-glacial enforcement process, allowing the NCAA to deal with rule-breaking coaches before they retire. We could argue that it's foolish to decide on the penalty structure for rule-breakers without first deciding on the rules -- a working group is currently trying to streamline the rulebook -- but this is the NCAA, after all. We can't expect complete common sense.
We should credit the NCAA for making an honest effort to overhaul a system in desperate need of fixing. Tuesday's changes will scrap the old system for codifying violations and replace it with something more flexible. Before, infractions were either secondary violations or major violations. Schools could jaywalk or commit murder. That's how the Boise State couch-surfing case wound up being viewed through the same prism as Alabama buying Albert Means at the turn of this century. Those cases weren't even close to the same, but under the old system, each constituted a major violation. Now, the NCAA will have four categories of violations. I'll try to translate NCAA-to-English to explain.
• Level IV -- Incidental issues: A football coach butt dials a recruit, going over the one-call-a-week limit. (This entire category may get eliminated if the working group does away with some of the stupidest rules during the rulebook overhaul.)
• Level III -- Breach of conduct: A basketball coach tweets that a prospect has committed to the school and names the prospect.
• Level II -- Significant breach of conduct: Incoming football freshmen taking summer classes sleep on the couches of upperclassmen because "voluntary" summer workouts are actually required at every school.
• Level I -- Severe breach of conduct: A football player commits to a school, and a few weeks later he is somehow able to buy a barely used Dodge Challenger for pennies on the dollar after an assistant coach places a call to a booster, who places a call to a dealership in the player's hometown.
In that Level I case, the assistant coach wouldn't be the only one on the hook if NCAA investigators discovered the scheme. Under the new system, the head coach would also take the fall. If the NCAA actually puts this into practice, this will mark a significant change, and it might actually curb some rule breaking. Throughout the country, head coaches work hard to avoid knowing when their assistants break rules. A few head coaches know about and even participate in the rule breaking because they are either dumb or incurable micromanagers. Most, however, tell assistants to handle the illicit business. The head coach tries to stay out of the loop. That way, he has plausible deniability and can simply fire the offending assistant and bring in a new one who will resume cheating. For infractions that occurred from Tuesday forward, the head coach -- whether he knew of the violations or not -- would be subject to a suspension of between 10 percent and 100 percent of a season.
The argument against this is that if an assistant gets angry at a head coach, the assistant can pay a player or break some other major rule without the head coach's knowledge and get the head coach suspended or possibly fired. The fact is an assistant could probably do the same thing under the old system and get a similar result. Hopefully, the Committee on Infractions will weigh each case carefully, and in the case of vendettas -- and there will be at least a few -- will not punish a coach who is the target of such a scheme.
Making head coaches accountable for actions of which they are aware and unaware may seem harsh and unfair, but the NCAA had little choice. NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement that the NCAA had to remove the "risk-reward analysis that has tempted people," and Emmert is correct. The financial reward for cheating and winning always severely outweighed the risk of getting caught and punished. Now, that risk has been jacked up considerably. Head coaches will have to be very careful whom they hire, and their fear for their own jobs should force them to self-police. Basically, it's the difference between a potential robber who knows he'll get probation if he gets caught stealing and a potential robber who knows he'll get his hand chopped off if he gets caught stealing. One probably will steal. One probably won't.
It is up to the NCAA and its Committee on Infractions to enforce these policies consistently. No matter what committee members say, the real reason USC's football program received a much harsher penalty in its extra benefits case than Ohio State or North Carolina did in their extra benefits cases is because USC fought the NCAA while Ohio State and North Carolina worked with the NCAA. If you play ball, if you hire high-priced consultants who know how to work with NCAA investigators to craft a semi-plausible narrative that admits some guilt and ignores the rest, you get off lighter. This happens in the criminal court system all the time, but as the NCAA likes to remind us when we criticize its justice system for not providing due process, the NCAA's justice system is not the criminal court system. Schools guilty of similar violations should receive similar penalties no matter what plea they originally entered. In practice, this probably won't happen. In practice, as Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com wrote, the four-tiered structure probably will allow the best NCAA infractions consultants -- the Michael Glaziers and Chuck Smarts -- to plead felonies down to misdemeanors.
We can hope that won't be the case. It's time to be optimistic about the NCAA for once. Finally, it has added some teeth to the enforcement of its silly rules. Will it use those teeth to chew up rule-breaking coaches? We'll see. But for spending more than a year trying to create a more logical, practical procedure, the NCAA deserves some credit. Besides, if the new system doesn't work or if a case comes along that doesn't quite fit, Emmert has proven himself quite willing to simply ignore the entire process altogether.