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UNC case shows how reward still outweighs risk for cheating


On page two of the NCAA Committee on Infractions public report in the case of the North Carolina football program, committee members offer some helpful advice to other programs. "This case," committee members wrote, "should serve as a cautionary tale to all institutions to vigilantly monitor the activities of those student-athletes who possess the potential to be top professional prospects."

That's not quite correct. The North Carolina case actually provided more of a road map. Remember, for those who don't consider it an ethical decision -- this includes most of the people who can get rich off the deal -- the decision to break the NCAA's rules is a pure risk/reward calculation. The penalties handed down Monday proved once again that the reward is still far greater than the risk as long as coaches and athletic directors understand a few things from the outset. A program can spit all over the NCAA rule book in an effort to reach or remain at the highest echelon of college football, and as long as that program cooperates with the NCAA during the investigation of its alleged "crimes," the Committee on Infractions will respond with a suite of penalties that contain far more bark than bite.

(Lest this devolve into typical sports writer moralizing, let's get one thing straight. Many of the NCAA's rules are arbitrary and unnecessary. No one cares when a young person in one field of the entertainment industry cashes in on talent above and beyond the rank and file, but the NCAA cares a great deal when a young person in its particular field of the entertainment industry cashes in on talent above and beyond the rank and file. It doesn't bother anyone when Miley Cyrus rakes in millions, but it bothers a lot of people when Marvin Austin gets bottle service on South Beach and an agent foots the bill. This is quite silly. But since the NCAA decided to make these rules and makes a big show of enforcing them, this is a topic that must be examined in the coverage of major college football.)

For a case that involved academic fraud and players taking money and goodies from agents, North Carolina will lose 15 scholarships over three years and will be banned from postseason play for the 2012 season. Former assistant coach John Blake, who was accused of steering players to agent Gary Wichard in exchange for payment, was given a three-year show-cause order that bans him from recruiting. That essentially renders Blake unemployable at the college level.

New Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora expressed regret Monday that the current players will be punished for the sins of the past ones come bowl season, but Fedora should be more angry with his own administration than the committee. Just as in Ohio State's case, had North Carolina elected to self-impose a bowl suspension in 2011 instead of playing in a bowl the players didn't want to go to in the first place, the program would be essentially in the clear as long as Fedora and his staff recruit wisely to offset the scholarship restrictions.

If you've followed the Committee on Infractions for the past few years, you're probably asking a few questions. Don't these penalties seem awfully similar to the ones handed to Ohio State? Indeed they do. Didn't the Ohio State and North Carolina cases involve multiple players and one coach, and didn't USC's case involve exactly one player and exactly one assistant coach? Yes, that's also true. So why did USC get twice the penalty of those other schools?

Look to the road map.

From what the Committee has handed down in recent years, this is what a program wishing to cheat its way up should do.

1) Make sure any exchange of money is indirect.

Never, ever buy a player. As Alabama learned in the Albert Means case, that is one of the few infractions that can draw crippling penalties. Instead of paying players directly, simply look the other way as runners for agents and financial advisers fund the best players. The market will decide which players deserve payment, none of the money comes from the school or its boosters and the coaches maintain plausible deniability.

2) Academic fraud can keep your dumbest players eligible, but academic fraud is bad, mmmkay. (Just not as bad as some universities and the NCAA would like you to believe.)

This rule depends on your school. On some campuses, instances of academic fraud result in players and coaches getting hammered. Make sure you don't work on one of those zero-tolerance campuses. At North Carolina, the tutor accused of providing improper help for players also tutored the son of then-coach Butch Davis. According to UNC officials, this in no way meant Davis had any knowledge of the academic fraud. (The school and the committee had no problem accepting circumstantial evidence in the case of former assistant Blake, but more on that later.)

To hear most academics tell it, academic fraud is one of the most serious offenses that can be committed on a college campus. The penalties suffered by the players involved will almost always be severe. They'll likely be expelled. But as long as coaches can maintain that wall of deniability, the program should be fine in the long run.

3) While this could cost a coach his job, it also might make him wealthier.

Had Austin not tweeted about his good times in Florida, this investigation might never have happened. Had the entirety of North Carolina's roster played in 2010, we might not be pointing and laughing at the ACC in football. The Tar Heels were loaded. Had there been no investigation, Davis would have been the hottest name in coaching. For Davis, the reward still outweighs the risk. Given the option to run his program in this manner 100 more times, he should do it 100 times. Yes, his team got caught, but the percentages suggest this was simply bad luck. Thanks to great protection from North Carolina, which at the time of the investigation was determined to keep Davis, Davis didn't receive a single NCAA penalty. His reputation was tarred by the scandal, but if an athletic director wanted to hire Davis tomorrow, that would be just fine with the NCAA.

4) While this might cost an athletic director his job, he can protect the program -- and get a fat golden parachute -- by simply cooperating with the NCAA.

This is where USC failed and where Ohio State and North Carolina succeeded. Had then-athletic director Mike Garrett played ball with NCAA investigators looking into Reggie Bush's payments from two wannabe agents, the Trojans wouldn't be dealing with three years of double-digit scholarship losses. While USC has thus far handled the sanctions well, the sheer number of scholarships lost -- 30 in three years -- will at some point cause an unavoidable dip in depth that will show up on the field.

Ohio State and North Carolina cooperated with investigators. They offered up the players -- whom they consider expendable pawns, anyway -- and one sacrificial lamb of a coach. Ohio State got the worst end of the deal here, but former head coach Jim Tressel had to be sacrificed because he was caught dead to rights lying to the NCAA. North Carolina, meanwhile, offered up Blake and protected Davis. Davis didn't actually lose his job until the investigation had long been wrapped.

5) If you are the sacrificial lamb, do not waste time and money fighting. Find a job outside college sports. You will be found guilty, even if the NCAA doesn't actually prove its accusations.

Former USC assistant Todd McNair learned this the hard way. Tressel was wise enough to take a job with the Indianapolis Colts. Blake falls into the same category as McNair.

If you read my story on Blake from October, you saw exactly the same evidence the committee saw at the Oct. 28 hearing with regard to the NCAA's accusation that Blake received payment from Wichard between 2007-10 for steering North Carolina players toward Wichard. While that evidence certainly produces a lot of smoke, none of it proves Blake steered anyone at North Carolina to Wichard. The NCAA would have a great case if it had tried to prove Blake steered former Oklahoma linebacker Brian Bosworth to Wichard, but that wasn't the allegation the NCAA set out to prove.

Between the hearing and Monday, committee members also saw Blake's 2005-10 tax records. In fact, this was the reason committee member Greg Sankey offered on a teleconference Monday for the delay in the announcement of the committee's findings. Blake's attorney, William Beaver, said the delay stemmed from negotiations between Blake's camp and the NCAA staff over confidentiality. Beaver wanted Blake's tax documents to be subject to the same confidentiality agreement to which Beaver and Blake had been forced to agree. The NCAA staff couldn't promise Blake's tax returns would be kept confidential after the case closed, so Blake initially refused to turn over the documents. Eventually, he changed his mind. The NCAA staff received the tax returns early last month. When asked Monday what was in the tax returns that convinced the committee of Blake's guilt, Sankey declined to provide any specifics.

Why? Because the tax returns didn't prove anything. In a letter to Blake's attorneys dated Feb. 3, the NCAA staff said as much: "After reviewing the items submitted by Blake, it is the staff's position that Blake did not report to the Internal Revenue Service any income from Gary Wichard, NFLPA certified agent, or Pro Tect Management; however, the absence of reported income tied to that agent or agency does not answer the question of whether Blake received unreported compensation from Wichard."

Did Blake steer North Carolina players to Wichard? Maybe. Maybe not. One thing is certain. The NCAA didn't prove its case, and the committee found Blake guilty anyway.

Someone always has to go down in these cases.

But if coaches and administrators follow the map provided by the Committee on Infractions in recent cases, the program can usually stay afloat no matter how serious the charges.