Ole Miss's public relations wizardry should save it from public judgment, but not NCAA sanctions
At least one person at Ole Miss is a genius. The rest may need to re-read my Cheating For Dummies column. But first, let's discuss the public relations wizardry practiced Friday in Oxford.
By releasing the NCAA Notice of Allegations the school has had for months on the Friday before Memorial Day, the school can take advantage of the natural deadening of the news cycle on a holiday weekend. By releasing it a day after Baylor revealed a systemic failure within the football program to deal with cases of rape and domestic violence, Ole Miss managed to juxtapose what the schools of the NCAA care about and what actually matters.
Though that juxtaposition probably won't get Ole Miss off the hook from the NCAA's Committee on Infractions (COI), it can and should generate a discussion about the NCAA, its rules and its role. So that's a PR win for Ole Miss and a teachable moment for the rest of us. It may not help Ole Miss avoid sanctions, but we'll get to that in a few paragraphs. Let's talk about the important stuff first.
Ten or 20 years ago, a similar
notice of allegations would have prompted such pearl clutching that the Football Writers Association of America would have needed a volume discount deal with a hand surgeon for finger transplants. Now? It's a little difficult to get upset about a lengthy list of relatively inconsequential dollar amounts.
Friday, we learned that Ole Miss players, according to NCAA investigators, were kept rolling in gently used loaner vehicles. Often, according to the NCAA, their parents' hotel rooms were paid for. Thursday, a report paid for by Baylor's Board of Regents claimed that Baylor coaches willfully disregarded accusations of rape and domestic violence within their program and may have violated a federal law that requires notifying schools when a suspected sexual predator is transferring. Which one of those matters?
The total cash value of the benefits provided to Ole Miss football players, according to the NCAA? That would be $15,608. Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze (2016 salary: $4.7 million) makes more than that every 1.2 days. Ole Miss estimates it has spent $1.5 million on this investigation so far. Had it divvied that amount among its 391 athletes, each would have received $3,886.32. Then Ole Miss would have been in real trouble.
So why are we supposed to get worked up about this? It matters, of course, because it matters to the schools. They wrote rules against loaning players used cars and giving their parents free hotel rooms. (Unless the team makes the College Football Playoff, and then it's totally OK to pay for their hotel rooms.) They did not write rules against covering up rapes on college campuses. Fortunately, local municipalities and the federal government did.
Some readers were enraged Thursday night when I explained that it was unlikely the NCAA would punish Baylor for the disgusting acts that attorneys from law firm Pepper Hamilton claim took place within the football program. This isn't because Baylor shouldn't be punished; it's because these issues fall outside the NCAA's jurisdiction. The U.S. Department of Education can yank federal funding—and access to the federal student loan program—for violations of Title IX, but that's a nuclear option that has yet to be deployed.
Most schools, and Baylor seems to fit here, are willing to play ball and make the corrections the department asks. The NCAA has no bylaws regarding violations of criminal law or federal procedure. If the schools wanted such bylaws to exist, they would pass them. If it mattered to them as much as a few hundred bucks here and there does, they would have created a punitive mechanism after the NCAA's punishment of Penn State for the Jerry Sandusky scandal. In that case, the NCAA went around its normal procedure to sanction Penn State and then backed off the penalties after getting humiliated in court. The schools didn't bother to pass any bylaws that would allow for such punishments, so we must assume they'd rather the NCAA focus on the nickel-and-dime (or hundred-and-thousand) stuff.
This does not mean Ole Miss should get off lightly. I think the laws against marijuana are silly, but I haven't used any since college because I'd rather not run afoul of the law in my state. The rules are what they are, and the coaches and administrators are supposed to follow them. Ole Miss has proposed docking itself 11 football scholarships over a four-year period, suspending two assistant coaches from recruiting and three years of probation. It already has banned itself from hosting unofficial visitors for a time and reduced recruit evaluation days for assistants.
The COI could tack on more after it hears the case. Ole Miss is scheduled to go before the committee this summer but has asked for an extension based on the Laremy Tunsil revelations on the first night of the NFL draft. The committee has yet to decide if it will grant the extension. It also could suspend head coach Hugh Freeze because of a recent change that allows the COI to punish head coaches for the actions of their assistants. This past basketball season, Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim served a nine-game NCAA suspension. The Orange made the Final Four.
That said, no rational person will look at what is alleged at Baylor and what is alleged at Ole Miss and consider the cases remotely similar. They aren't mutually exclusive. You can be disgusted by what Baylor coaches are accused of and by what Ole Miss coaches are accused of. But there's probably something wrong with anyone who can't grasp that the Baylor situation is a whole lot worse. That is what Ole Miss officials were counting on when they released the NOA on Friday. They'll win the news cycle, but the COI probably won't care.