The University of Southern California learned recently that its appeal of its NCAA sanctions levied for recruiting violations in its football program would not be reviewed further by the NCAA. USC will have to forfeit wins and was stripped of its Bowl Championship Series national championship trophy from the 2004 season. It also faces the loss of 30 initial scholarship signings over the next 3 years and can have no more than 75 players on scholarship for the 3 year period beginning in August, 2011.
USC had been operating in anticipation of this day for well over a year. Some players were redshirted in 2010, giving them an extra year of eligibility with the program. In February the school signed its maximum allotment of 25 players to new scholarships. Even though the penalties had been handed down by the NCAA Infractions Committee back in 2010 the Trojans could still sign 25 players because they had filed an appeal of those sanctions. This effectively postponed the roster limits for one year, allowing the Trojan coaches time to plan for roster management.
USA Today recently ran a story detailing how it seems that major football programs that are placed on probation seem to bounce back quickly and within a very short period of time their teams are back winning and playing in Bowl Championship Series (BCS) bowl games.
The story included a reference to a 2009 study by Chad McEvoy, an associate professor of sports management at Illinois State University. He looked at 35 teams that had been sanctioned for major rule violations between 1987 and 2002 and found that in the first 5 years following sanctions the schools’ teams actually had increased winning percentages on the playing field—from .547 to .566. Even for the 10 schools with what were considered the most serious infractions the 5 year winning percentage only declined from .634 to .614.
Many critics of the NCAA note that it has not used its two most powerful penalties in a long time. The only school to ever face the so-called death penalty was SMU, whose football program was shut down for 2 years following its 1987 infractions case. The NCAA has only used its TV ban penalty twice on Division I teams since 1985—on Maryland’s men’s basketball team in 1988 and on Maine University’s men’s hockey team in 1996.
Payment of money back, loss of victories and limits on scholarships don’t really seem to have much impact on major programs. Football programs at school such as Ohio State and USC are deemed by many as simply being too big to fail.
In the past 5 years alone some 25 BCS schools have seen their football or men’s basketball programs investigated or punished for NCAA rule violations. This list does not include the prominent Memphis University men’s basketball program which had to forfeit money and victories, including its Final Four appearance, from the 2008-2009 season following violations being uncovered involved star player Derrick Rose. It also does not include the very visible Boise State football program, now under investigation over allegations of several recruiting rule violations. Fully 30% of the BCS schools have had their programs attacked for rule violations in the past five years Two schools, USC and Tennessee, have had both of these programs come under NCAA scrutiny.
The NCAA enforcement staff has a strict statute of limitations for violations that cause it to not investigate some claims of wrongdoing. It has no subpoena power, so in many instances it cannot access relevant documents and cannot compel people to talk. Many experts believe that because of limitations such as these, and the failure of the NCAA to impose its harshest penalties on prominent violators, many violations go unpunished. The feeling among many is that there are only a few schools that do not cheat in some fashion.
This cynicism may at some point pose the greatest threat to the system that is big-time college sports. The feeling is growing among those who work in and follow college sports that the current state of ethics may bring down the entire system. Yet there is a feeling that many fans simply don’t care as long as their favorite team is successful. USC still gets to claim it was the Associated Press national champ in 2004. It will continue to have a trophy on display in its athletic center and will continue to count the 2004 season as one of its championship seasons. Auburn’s 1957 national championship in football was tainted by probation; but how many Auburn fans even know this?
It’s almost enough to make a sports administrator cry.