Before Thursday, the University of Missouri’s football team had a lot to look forward to. After finishing 2018 at 8–5 (and just a few bad plays away from 10–3), coach Barry Odom seemed settled into his role. The Tigers had a brutal schedule last fall; in 2019, it looks like one of the SEC’s more manageable slates. And in December, the team lured Kelly Bryant, the sought-after Clemson transfer, to suit up as its quarterback come September.
But by late Thursday morning, none of that seemed to matter. That’s when the NCAA released its sanctions related to an investigation into one Missouri tutor who completed coursework for 12 athletes in 2015 and ’16—and when maybe the worst month on record for football fans in the Show Me State got even more miserable.
In a release, the NCAA wrote that it found the tutor “felt pressure to ensure student-athletes passed courses” but that “the investigation did not support that her colleagues directed her to complete the student-athletes’ work.” Missouri acknowledged the tutor’s actions and that they were a violation of its honor code. The school had cooperated with the investigation, acknowledging Level I violations. Its athletics administration was found to be uninvolved with the tutor’s actions.
And then the NCAA handed Missouri’s football team a one-year bowl ban. It baseball and softball programs also received postseason bans, which will be enforced this spring. The school also got three years of probation, recruiting restrictions and scholarship reductions for the 2019–20 academic year. It will also vacate records in games in which any of the 12 athletes participated.
In a release sent barely an hour after the news broke, Missouri chancellor Alexander Cartwright called the punishment a “harsh and inconsistent decision” and announced (unsurprisingly) that the school would appeal it immediately. In the same statement, athletics director Jim Sterk pointed out the hypocrisy inherent in the case: Missouri moved quickly once it knew of the allegations against the tutor and cooperated with the NCAA in a joint investigation. “It is hard to fathom that the University could be cited for exemplary cooperation throughout this case, and yet end up with these unprecedented penalties that could unfairly and adversely impact innocent current and future Mizzou student-athletes,” Sterk wrote.
That, apparently, is the difference between Missouri’s penalty and North Carolina’s lack thereof in 2017: cooperation and honesty on the part of the school. While UNC stood by the essentially made-up courses its athletes completed, Missouri adhered to its honor code and worked with the NCAA to root out what had gone wrong. And for that, its program got a whiplash-inducing gut punch when it deserved a slap on the wrist. (For what it’s worth, the Tar Heels got no punishment at all.)
Last October, as the investigation into a massive sex abuse scandal at Baylor advanced, the NCAA advised the school to consider a one-year postseason ban. In 2017, Ole Miss got a two-year ban and the same amount of probation as Missouri for committing 15 Level I violations related to years of illegal recruiting tactics. Ohio State got a one-year ban in 2012 after a wide-ranging tattoo and memorabilia scandal rocked the program and forced coach Jim Tressel to resign.
And Missouri employed a wayward tutor without adequate oversight. This is like comparing apples to asteroids, proof that on top of its indentured servitude-esque business model, the NCAA is also wildly inconsistent. Is there some sort of punishment dartboard at headquarters in Indianapolis, and Frank, the guy who tossed the Buckeyes’ dart and always kind of hooks it left, also threw it for Mizzou?
Maybe not; darts seem a bit too fun for the NCAA, and this ruling takes dour to a new level. It’s already a little gross, when you think too hard about it, to cheer for these unpaid men who make their schools millions—and that’s before arbitrary punishments like this one, which keep those men from truly competing and may even pull down their draft stock. Remember, too: This is all as punishment for the actions of one woman and 12 athletes long since graduated. The only thing that feels satisfying here is to cheer against the NCAA, the only entity that can be counted on to go undefeated in even more monotonous a fashion than Alabama.
For Missouri, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The program has struggled to establish a consistent identity in the years since Gary Pinkel resigned in 2015, and by the middle of last year, it seemed finally to have hit a rhythm. It inked a talented transfer—and really, Bryant might be the biggest loser here of all—and seemed poised to continue to improve on defense. In 2019, its SEC West opponent, usually a stumbling block, is Ole Miss. Its nonconference schedule is easy enough to be counted on for a few wins but still respectable—West Virginia travels to Columbia in Week 2—and even if Georgia is still firmly in control of the SEC East, the Tigers looked like they might be able rise to the top of the league’s weaker division and break through to double-digit wins for the first time under Odom.
Now, it still could, but to what end? And what lessons are learned? Fans hoping for some semblance of a rational playing field should find new hobbies, maybe, and schools should never cooperate. I’m sure that’s what the NCAA was hoping to prove.