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Baylor's Slap on the Wrist Doesn't Feel Right, But There's Not Much NCAA Rules Could Do

Like with the UNC academic scandal, there wasn’t a bylaw that fit the literal crimes committed by the school during the Art Briles era.
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There have been jokes for decades about the size of the NCAA rules manual, about how the organization can find a way to penalize almost anyone for almost anything. And yet at 451 pages, that tome sometimes can still seem incomplete and inadequate. This is one of those times.

On Wednesday, the NCAA Committee on Infractions regretfully let off Baylor football with a wrist slap in resolving its case dating to the Art Briles reign of lawless infamy. Violence against women, and violence in general, created a deep stain on the Baptist university in Waco, Texas, but not one that could seep into the bylaws created by the NCAA member institutions. This is more an NCAA structural issue than a failing by the individuals tasked with hearing the case.

“The seven members of the panel believe there could have been or should have been avenues to address” the Baylor scandal in terms of major sanctions, said COI chair Joel Maturi. But there wasn’t a bylaw that fit the literal crimes.

Baylor football flag

In my view, that’s actually how it should be. The NCAA shouldn’t be tasked with legislating morality. Some issues are too serious and better left to law enforcement or the Department of Education, both of which have been involved at Baylor. And, most locally of all, it should be the responsibility of the university itself. But sometimes a college can be hard to shame, which is what led to the unchecked culture and sexual assault allegations that proliferated beneath the willfully averted gaze of then president Kenneth Starr.

But people clamor for NCAA justice, because winning and losing on the playing field matters to a disproportionate degree. Thus the association is set up to fail.

College football fans watched Baylor win bigger than it ever had won, and then they found out what kind of an operation Briles was running, and then they wanted Baylor to pay. In terms of applying penalties that hit the Bears where it would hurt, this is the latest chapter in too-late, too-lenient NCAA rulings that deepen the cynicism that permeates college athletics.

The three most significant scandals of the past decade are the Jerry Sandusky disgrace at Penn State, the North Carolina academic fraud factory and what happened at Baylor. The NCAA scorecard in applying fair and meaningful sanctions tied to those scandals: failure, failure, failure. That’s a big reason why the association is wallowing in its current credibility deficit.

In the Penn State case, the NCAA overreached due to the collective horror over what had occurred. President Mark Emmert, empowered by the university presidents who sat atop the association’s power structure, tried to freelance a punishment from outside the dictates of that rules manual. The sanctions handed down in the summer of 2012 included a four-year postseason ban, a $60 million fine and a loss of 10 scholarships per season for four years.

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A year later, after significant blowback and some digging into how much of a mandate Emmert truly had to drop the hammer, the Penn State sanctions started to be rolled back. First the scholarship reductions were reduced. Then in 2014, the postseason ban disappeared. That essentially marked the end of Emmert as a true power player and the beginning of his transition to diminished figurehead status atop a flawed organization. It also should be noted that missteps with Penn State echoed through the Baylor ruling.

"Baylor admitted to moral and ethical failings in its handling of sexual and interpersonal violence on campus but argued those failings, however egregious, did not constitute violations of NCAA rules," the Committee on Infractions release said. "Ultimately, and with tremendous reluctance, this panel agrees. To arrive at a different outcome would require the [committee] to ignore the rules the association's membership has adopted.”

Translation: We tried going Lone Ranger before and it didn’t work out, so we’re not saddling up again.

In between those two scandals was the North Carolina academic ruling in 2017, in which the NCAA was outsmarted by the school’s lawyers. In an infractions case adjudicated by Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey, the school got away scot-free with decades of systemic cheating by saying it ultimately was O.K. with the academic sham—with the key distinction being that the bogus classes also were available to regular students, and not just athletes. Thus, there was no bylaw upon which to nail the Tar Heels. “The fact that the courses did not meet our expectations doesn’t make them fraudulent,” said UNC general counsel Mark Merritt at the time of the NCAA ruling.

It was a shameless stance, but it succeeded in outmaneuvering the infamously rigid NCAA. There was nothing left for the Committee on Infractions to do but shrug and say, “We’ve got nothing.” Which is exactly what it had to do again Wednesday with Baylor.

The other major problem with this case was a familiar one with NCAA crime and punishment: the time it took to be fully processed. Briles was fired in 2016 for an accumulation of incidents over previous years. It wasn’t until January 2020 that the case went to the Committee on Infractions, and there was no hearing until last December. Then the ruling came down eight months later.

All of that is way behind the NCAA’s prescribed timeline. The pandemic certainly was a complicating factor, but it underscores the incredibly slow process that leaves the Committee on Infractions weighing penalties against a school years after the fact—and usually years after the offending parties have departed. Dave Aranda, the current football coach, was preceded by Matt Rhule and Jim Grobe since Briles was dismissed. A whole lot of water has flowed through the Brazos River since Briles was there.

While the Committee on Infractions has been willing to use moral outrage as an accelerator for sanctions—see: the Louisville stripper scandal—it has to be tied to an applicable bylaw. And in the Baylor case, there was no hook to hang the sanctions hat upon. Even the most bloated rulebook in sports doesn’t have a section that properly addresses the stain Art Briles left in Waco. 

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