Has the NCAA Become A Paper Tiger?
Somehow, it’s Auburn’s fault that Oregon and Mississippi State got off light. At least in the court of public opinion. We totally got away with the Cam bit, right?
War Eagle, everybody. We interrupt our usual Thursday preview spot, to examine a few recent NCAA findings. A November to remember must wait a bit. This week, We’ll talk about NCAA crime and punishment once again. This week, the NCAA announced sanctions against the Oregon Ducks, for being caught paying street agent Willy Lyles $25,000 to steer prize running back Lachae Seastrunk to Eugene. Some folks felt the sanctions were ridiculously light, some felt that they were appropriate, but in at least half the opinion pieces I’ve seen written on the subject, “dirty programs like Auburn” or the like is used. Yep folks, the Cam Newton “scandal” continues to sell newspapers and drive internet traffic, nearly three years later!
In the wake of NCAA investigations of Mississippi State and Oregon, folks all across the country are crying about NCAA favoritism, timidity, or just plain incompetence. Take your pick. Fans of schools hammered by the NCAA in the past decade, such as Miami, Southern Cal, North Carolina, Alabama, and Penn State are screaming about hypocrisy. “They didn’t do ANYTHING to Auburn, and Auburn OBVIOUSLY paid Cam!” If I’ve read that once this past month, I’ve read it a thousand times.
In the wake of the Cam Newton events of late 2010, accusations and investigations flew hot and heavy. But folks, nothing was found. Folks like Danny Sheridan and his “bag man,” Scotty Moore, HBO Real Sports, Clay Travis, Pete Thamel, and Thayer Evans all “had the goods.” Nothing concrete came of ANY of it. The SEC, the NCAA, and even the FBI spent the better part of a YEAR at Auburn investigating, and found NO evidence. How likely is that?
What all parties involved can agree upon in the Cam Newton case, is that Cam’s father Cecil Newton and Mississippi State boosters discussed a $180 grand payment for Cam to play in Starkville. That’s a Bulldog problem, not a Tiger one! And if you’re looking for a smoking gun, the whole “payment” angle was admitted to by the school in another case. Mississippi State did self-report, and fired the coach involved immediately. Hence, say the partisans, pretty light sanctions.
In a similar vein, Oregon self-reported and “fully cooperated” on the Willy Lyles accusations. Oregon received even lighter sanctions than Mississippi State, although former head coach Chip Kelly has been fingered with one of those “show cause” labels for the better part of two years. How that will play out is anyone’s guess. Kelly will get at least a couple of years to try his high-octane tricks with the Philadelphia Eagles. And with Michael Vick at quarterback it might even work. As long as Vick stays healthy and off the police blotter.
In practice, a “show cause” penalty, even of such a short duration might well be a career killer. Nearly 30 years ago at Florida, Charley Pell told all, and never got another college job offer. It’s doubtful you’ll see Jim Tressel again as an NCAA head coach. Could Kelly come back and coach again in the NCAA? Some folks project him ending up at Southern Cal after an abortive NFL stint. Me, I can’t see the Trojans risking it after what they’ve been hit with.
As recent penalties show, your real danger these days in terms of NCAA investigations is the perception of being “uncooperative.” As long as a school has an active, informative and sufficiently empowered compliance department, sanctions will be light. It’s all about following procedure. Big institutional failures result in big sanctions. Penn State got hit for (allegedly) covering up criminal activity in the athletic department. Certain supporters of that program are complaining in various legal venues that they were denied due process, and I think it’s a valid argument. While requiring its members to adher to a tremendous volume of standards, the NCAA enforcement bunch has increasingly been exposed failing to adhere to… well, many standards at all.
Irregularities in the Miami investigation, some folks argue, has neutered the organization’s effectiveness. Others are upset at Mark Emmert’s high-handed penalties against Penn State, which completely bypassed the usual sentencing procedure in the NCAA. When some schools get hammered by an NCAA that violates its own procedures, and programs that wrote checks to illegal recruiters or ignored known instances of such guys get wrist-slaps, there’s trouble on the horizon.
Over at the official Auburn website, we’re all pretty lucky that one of the most insightful and principled sports journalists of this generation has taken up residence there. His interview with new/old “associate athletic director for compliance” Dave Dideon tells the tale. This year, Dideon left an enforcement post with the NCAA, and headed back to Auburn, where he did a stint in the 1990s. His telling statement about the NCAA enforcement department? “There were a lot of things that occurred I didn’t agree with and a lot of changes that were made I didn’t agree with.”
In the end, I have to agree with the NCAA complainers. The organization needs to adhere to its own standards. When, out of fear, they hand out trivial one or two scholarship suspensions and no post-season bans to schools who’ve written checks to non-coach “recruiters,” the NCAA has lost its clout. And by not issuing serious sanctions for such ADMITTED behavior, the NCAA is encouraging everyone to bend the rules to their own advantage. This must change.