- Every case the NCAA handles involving academic fraud is now viewed through the prism of North Carolina's controversial escape of punishment, but the schools don't seem upset enough by the inconsistent punishments to change the system.
Among the penalties the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions handed down to Missouri on Thursday because a former tutor did classwork for athletes, the most notable and damaging is a one-year bowl ban for Missouri’s football program. This case was a clear violation of the NCAA’s rules, and Missouri officials admitted the misconduct happened.
Sounds pretty open and shut, right? But it never is when it comes to NCAA infractions cases, because the NCAA has yet to prove it can investigate or adjudicate these cases fairly or evenly.
This penalty, which Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk has promised the school will appeal, will have a long tail. Every Missouri football player with only one season of eligibility remaining now is free to transfer anywhere and play immediately—regardless of whether that player has graduated. This could decimate the roster ahead of a season that seemed to have so much promise when Clemson graduate transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant chose the Tigers.
Some of you are probably wondering why that’s such a big deal. The rules were broken. The school admitted it. A penalty was due.
More of you are probably saying this: But what about North Carolina?
That’s because every case the NCAA handles involving academic fraud will now be viewed through the prism of what the COI did to North Carolina for a case involving years of fake classes that had a disproportionate percentage of athletes enrolled. And what did the COI do to North Carolina for years of academic fraud that helped the Tar Heels’ teams?
This column won’t re-litigate that case, nor will it bash North Carolina for its defense in that case. In fact, UNC’s defense was brilliant. The NCAA doesn’t have a rule against having an entire department full of fake classes that is open to every student on campus. The NCAA’s enforcement staff tried to accuse UNC of giving athletes “extra benefits,” which was incredibly stupid because the NCAA’s definition of an extra benefit is basically “something that isn’t available to the entire student body.” The classes were available to the entire student body. It’s an airtight defense, and it worked. Members of the COI—who work for schools and conferences—knew they couldn’t punish UNC because if UNC sued in real court, the verdict from the NCAA’s kangaroo court would never hold up.
The members of the COI who handled the Missouri case pointed out this difference in the report they released Thursday.
“The conduct at issue in this case is also distinguishable from the COI's decision in University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2017). Among other differences, UNC stood by the courses and the grades it awarded student-athletes. In support of that position, UNC asserted courses were created and graded by an office secretary, student-athletes completed their own work. Here, by contrast, Missouri acknowledged that the tutor completed student-athletes’ work and, in most instances, this conduct violated its honor code.”
This is a massive cop-out that also happens to be 100% accurate. The NCAA never has and never will be in the business of judging an individual curriculum (at the college level; the NCAA is quite judgmental when it comes to high school coursework) and will leave that sort of thing to the accrediting agencies.
But this logic does nothing to satisfy rational, logical individuals who see this relative flea getting swatted with a sledgehammer while the elephant wanders away unscathed. It also does nothing to contradict the public image of the NCAA as a capricious steward that seems fundamentally incapable of applying its brand of justice fairly.
Twelve years ago, Florida State was found guilty in an academic fraud case involving 61 athletes, 23 of them football players, who were given the answers to a test. The football program lost scholarships and had to vacate wins. Like Missouri on Thursday, Florida State officials decried the punishment as too harsh. But that was because it affected Bobby Bowden’s official win total. It didn’t affect the bottom line because there was no bowl ban. A case more similar to Missouri’s wrapped last year at Notre Dame. In that case, the COI found that an athletic trainer had helped two football players commit academic fraud and had provided six other players with impermissible benefits. The Irish were forced to vacate wins from 2012 and 2013, but they didn’t face a postseason ban. In both those cases, just as in the Missouri case, the schools admitted the rules had been broken.
But neither Florida State nor Notre Dame were slapped with a postseason ban. Missouri got one in football, baseball and softball in this case. The football postseason ban in particular could cost Missouri millions and could affect the program for years. Based on what Ole Miss is expected to lose from its SEC revenue distribution for being banned from a bowl this past season (about $8 million, with $4 million due back to Ole Miss if it has no trouble for five years), this could be a very expensive financial penalty for a case that looks similar to others that didn’t generate as harsh a penalty. The effect on the roster could be worse. If a large group of seniors leaves to play elsewhere, the Tigers will get creamed this year. That will affect recruiting for the classes of 2020 and ’21. Vacating wins that can easily confirmed on YouTube has nowhere near the effect causing a season of futility does. The NCAA will point out that Missouri is being punished as a repeat offender, but the most recent major infractions case involving Missouri wrapped in 2016 and involved men’s basketball. The tutor in the recent case also was found to have helped a men’s basketball player commit academic fraud, but that program did not receive a postseason ban. So because the COI was still mad about what Missouri basketball did years ago, it chose to hand down a tougher penalty to Missouri ... football?
Those final few sentences explain why the NCAA’s justice system is so frustrating to athletes, coaches and fans. In real court, defendants cut plea deals all the time. But prosecutors in a jurisdiction try to keep the punishments consistent. The COI—which has a constantly changing membership—rarely delivers consistent punishments. All three of the schools mentioned above cooperated with the NCAA in cases with similar circumstances. Only one got the NCAA equivalent of jail time.
None of this will ever change unless the schools—which make the NCAA’s rules and set up the NCAA’s disciplinary process—demand a change and then make that change. By their unwillingness to make any meaningful change, we should assume the schools are perfectly happy with a system that feels as if it doles out punishments by throwing darts at a board.
The people at the schools are the only ones who can effect change. And they don’t seem to care until they’re on the business end of a penalty that feels chosen at random.