Joe Jenkins

NCAA Punishment System Is Broken

Created on Jun. 06, 2013 4:40 AM EST

Last week the NCAA levied a $20 fine against an unnamed female golfer at an unnamed West Coast Conference school for washing her car on campus. The fine for improper benefits is said to cover the cost of water and the hose the student used. 

What does this case prove? 

For one, we can say that the NCAA has successfully set a price point for dispensing water on college campuses. For those of you hoping the price of tea in China is the next great mystery to fall, don’t hold your breath.  Asia falls outside the NCAA’s jurisdiction.  

More importantly, this little episode proves that the NCAA is so far out of touch, a radio communication sent from their home offices in Indianapolis would take a week to reach the world we call home. Two months ago, NCAA president Mark Emmert patted himself on the back for the progress the institution has made under his tenure in an interview with ESPN.  What Emmert failed to notice is that his organization hasn’t been policing big-time college football in the FBS effectively for 60 years.

The NCAA first attempted to punish the bad boys of college football in 1953, when it placed Arizona State on probation and banned it from playing in bowl games for two years because a booster group known as the Sun Angels Foundation paid ASU football players nearly $80,000. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $696,722.10 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You could buy a few Cam Newtons and a handful of Reggie Bushes for that kind of scratch.

To the NCAA’s credit, the sanctions placed on the Sun Devils worked… sort of. ASU didn’t manage to sneak into a bowl game and play a single down for two years, and they never managed to make it onto Dean Vernon Wormer’s “double secret probation,” a.k.a “The Death Penalty.”

Unfortunately, the other major intended impact of a heavy-handed punishment never took place: It never deterred anybody — including ASU three more times — from cheating or breaking the rules again. Fifteen more schools were placed on probation and/or received bowl bans during the next three years.

Even the great early purge in the 1950s didn’t scare the rats out of the barn. At the end of the 2012 season, 65 percent (80 out of 124) of the schools in the FBS had either been placed on probation or been issued a post-season ban. There’s a great sortable list of all the schools that have ever been on probation at The schools that have spent the most time on probation are Southern Methodist (17 seasons, first and only victim of the NCAA’s “Death Penalty” to date), USC (15 seasons) and Auburn (11 seasons). Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma are all tied with 10 seasons apiece. 

With big names leading the pack, it’s easy to make a quantum leap and say that cheating and rule breaking leads to winning, but that would be something of a post hoc fallacy. The data doesn’t suggest that the Alabamas and Auburns of the world are winning all the time because they broke the rules; only that these schools are winning all the time and breaking the rules. There are plenty of schools that have broken the rules that don’t have the same track record as the Crimson Tide.  All this information suggests is that the schools are either A) unaware of the rules, or B) unafraid of the repercussions when the rules are bent or broken. While I’m sure there are a number of occurrences of the former, I’m willing to bet a good deal of them is a result of the latter. 


Not to get all draconian here, but the punishment doesn’t hurt. Sure, maybe the pride stings a bit when everybody else is playing in a bowl when your team can’t. Ask Ohio State how it felt to be left out of the BCS Championship last year.  But OSU still made a boatload of money playing football in 2012. They still packed the Horseshoe for every home game. Spring practice still was a mad house. Boosters still pumped money into the program. And the Big 10 Network still gave the Buckeyes their share of revenue. 

That’s why the “fewer scholarships and no bowl games” routine never has worked: The NCAA has spent the last 60 years punishing teams as if they were the not-for-profits they claim to be, and not the revenue-generating giants they really are. 

So how does the NCAA stop doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result?

Part 2: a solution…

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