Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Are NCAA Precedents Applied Fairly for all Sports?

A Penn State football fan looks away from the Nittany Lions' loss to Ohio. (Getty Images/Patrick Smith)

The Penn State community is no longer used to winning. A series of horrendous actions compounded by inexcusable cover-ups; the tarnished legacy of a longstanding football coach who was more like a father figure to students at large; and, trivial in comparison, being on the wrong end of a 24-14 result on their home turf against the Ohio Bobcats during the first weekend of the college football season.

For the first time in decades, the emphasis of "Happy Valley" is on the latter word.

While the penalties levied against Penn State are harsh, the Nittany Lions dodged the death penalty. The University of Miami is also still competing in the NCAA football ranks despite some demand for a ban after a booster implicated dozens of players, coaches and former players in an illicit benefits scandal in August 2011.

But what if the allegations at Miami had fallen more on the basketball team than on the gridiron Hurricanes? Or if an assistant basketball coach at any university in the country committed the heinous acts of Jerry Sandusky?

The hypothetical situations, obviously, cannot even approach the seriousness of what really happened. However, it is imperative to note that football is the clear breadwinner of athletic departments across the nation. Of the top 50 most profitable college athletic programs in 2009-10 season, 38 were football programs. Twenty spots passed before the first basketball program appeared, and it made more than $50 million less than the list's premier program.

Incidentally, the Penn State football program came in third on that list, turning a $50.4 million profit. If a program of that magnitude were removed from competition all together, the university would not be the only institution taking a financial hit. The NCAA would not reap any rewards either, financial or otherwise. Other areas of the institution would suffer as well, as football money is used to support other teams and it is widely believed that some students choose a university because of athletic success.

Axing a school's basketball program would not have such a far-reaching ripple effect, though. Players fall in hot water because of accepting improper benefits, and sometimes multiple members of the same team face such inquiries simultaneously, but nothing of Miami-magnitude has occurred in college hoops. Removal of a college basketball program would affect fewer student-athletes than taking away football due to sheer roster size disparity. Couple that with the second-tier profitability of college hoops and, no matter the offense, it would be far easier to wipe basketball from a campus than it would be to knock football out of the practice facility.

The most infamous reference among NCAA death penalty cases — those in which participation bans were actually levied, not just rumored or threatened — is that of Southern Methodist University's Pony Express football team. But the precedent of all major penalties was set by the University of Kentucky's basketball team of 1952. Four Wildcats were found culpable for their involvement in a point-shaving scandal as Kentucky was in the midst of winning three national tournaments in four years, the last coming in 1951 after allegations were already public. Despite legendary coach Adolf Rupp defending his players in the media, the Wildcats' 1952-53 season was effectively cancelled by a postseason ban and other programs' refusal to play Kentucky because of NCAA pressure.

A scandal more comparable to that of Miami's left the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisana at Lafayette) basketball team banned from NCAA play for the 1973-74 and '74-75 seasons. The multi-season was implemented for 120-plus violations involving cash payments and various other infractions in the program.

The NCAA powers-that-be take necessary action to keep member institutions and their student-athletes clean, acting with the intention of setting examples that are supposed to inhibit future infractions. It is the opinion of each individual fan, player and coach as to whether the penalties are reasonable or applied appropriately in the spectrum of all sports rather than on a basis that would give preference to one sport over another.

Hypothetical questions rarely provide relevant answers, but they can act as primers for situations that may come up in the future. As long as every athletic program is trying to gain a competitive edge, NCAA investigations will persist. The territory entered with the Penn State sanctions ensures that programs now face the specter of ramifications for actions involving neither payments or play, but for other actions committed off the field.

Right now an argument about fair treatment between varying sports programs is the farthest thing from the collective mind of a football team in Happy Valley, though.

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1 comment:

  1. Great article Alex! I have often wondered about this very same topic. Many decisions handed down from the NCAA often seem biased and arbitrary. In the legal world decisions and judgments are based on the foundation of past presidents and even though they vary by state and jurisdiction there is at least a comfort in knowing that they have some rhyme or reason. It seems that the NCAA hands down a death penalty for infractions that heavily involved the athletes, and other punishments if the nature was more organizationally involved. They dance the line between seriously altering someones dream (athletes) and punishing who is involved in the wrong doing. If the athletes are running amok taking bribes and shaving, the uni may get the penalty and deservedly so, but if it is more within the organization, then they probably just hand down sanctions. Either will cripple the university, but at least with sanctions the players can maintain some normalcy.