It’s all too easy to criticize NCAA sanctions. They’re always branded as either ineffective or over the top. The unfortunate truth is that, without time travel, there’s no real way to undo the damage done when a school commits a major rules violation.
A week ago, I mentioned some of the institutional flaws — namely, an unfair emphasis on major sports and a lack of concern for education — that result when college players lose their amateur status. But beyond these issues, how can the NCAA right the ship on the playing field when major violations are uncovered at a college?
This week’s wrong answer: ask Ohio State.
When Buckeye football coach Jim Tressel covered up improper benefits given to five of his players, the program took matters into its own hands in advance of its Aug. 12 date with the NCAA Infractions Committee. After asking Tressel to resign in May, Ohio State vacated all 12 of its wins from last season, including a Big Ten championship and a Sugar Bowl victory.
It looks admirable, at first: finally, a school owning up to its mistakes and showing willingness to pay the price for its actions.
Unfortunately, that price isn’t right. The Buckeyes will have officially posted a 0-1 record in 2010, but a victory is more than a “W” in the record books. If someone told you that Stanford didn’t win last year’s Big Game, you wouldn’t believe them. You were there, you watched the Bears get trounced 48-14, you saw the frowns on Cal fans’ faces on the train ride home. Unless you watch college football to keep track of your school’s all-time record, then all that matters is what happens on the gridiron, not what some bigwigs decide later on.
Vacating wins is a futile attempt to rewrite the past. Most NCAA sanctions, on the other hand, are an all-too-powerful attempt to rewrite the future. USC can attest to the fact that postseason bans and scholarship reductions are quite effective in downgrading an elite football program for years to come. Yet these methods are overkill, punishing hundreds of players — current and future — for the mistakes of just a handful of athletes and coaches. So what’s the proper balance between potency and common sense when penalizing a university with compliance issues?
This week’s right answer: ask Ohio State.
Before Tressel had even left, the school imposed a $250,000 fine against him. It was a significant hit, even for a coach who used to make $3.5 million a year. It was a focused punishment, limited to the man branded by university officials as the sole guilty party in the investigation. It was the best of both worlds.
That is, until Ohio State changed its mind.
In light of the vacated wins, the Buckeyes have decided to continue paying the perpetrator instead, giving Tressel over $50,000 more under his contract and allowing him to retire instead of resign.
But college football fans shouldn’t be mad that Ohio State has tried to save face for the man that coached the school to an impressive 106-22 record (pre-vacation) over the past 10 years. We should be thankful that the Buckeyes have pointed the NCAA in the right direction. If, as many analysts expect, the league decides to not accept the self-imposed sanctions, then it will work creatively to find a way to punish Tressel despite the fact that he’s no longer a part of the Ohio State program. It’s an excellent opportunity for the NCAA to set new precedents and send one clear message: even if you leave, you aren’t off the hook.
The same warning should apply to players as well. Star Buckeye quarterback Terrelle Pryor, one of the five athletes receiving improper benefits, left school early when the scandal worsened. As it stands, he’ll go unpunished and be given a multimillion-dollar salary by an NFL team. He should be forced to give some of that money — whether it’s his scholarship cost or the value of the benefits he received — back to the NCAA, which can reinvest it in a young athletic program with a cleaner track record or a developing sport looking to make a name for itself.
That’s another issue entirely, especially for less-wealthy offenders or those who don’t move on to the next level. But with the high frequency of major infractions, there should be more than enough incentive to find penalties that actually harm the violator.
What a concept.
Joseph Beyda hopes he doesn’t get sanctions for selling self-autographed t-shirts from his java computer programming club. Get in on the scheme at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu.