The NCAA Has a Huge Problem With Enforcing Its Rules

I sincerely hope you aren’t getting bored with reading things about the NBA playoffs. If you are, then I have a gift for you. And it’s a perfectly legal gift that you can accept without fear that subsequent legal action will be taken against you to nullify unrelated achievements you have earned. Guess what? It’s about college football and collegiate athletes getting things.

*Editor’s note that should probably be made before I get going: I am about to discuss, among other things, USC getting stripped of its 2004 NCAA football national championship. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I just graduated from USC after going to graduate school there for two years. I genuinely don’t think this has affected my view on that situation, and you should be able to see that as I offer opinions on other schools and athletes.

Yesterday it was announced that the NCAA is stripping USC of the 2004 football national championship because Reggie Bush, an important player for the Trojans that year, was determined to be ineligible due to his acceptance of several gifts (including a house) that violated the NCAA regulations.

The NCAA stripped USC of its 2004 title after Reggie Bush was determined to be the only college athlete who has ever received an illegal gift

Before this championship was stripped, USC had already been punished with a multi-year postseason ban and restrictions on scholarship offerings. Bush had also returned the Heisman trophy he won at USC, although everyone knows it was probably more of a forced action than one he simply did out of pure righteousness.

So why is stripping the championship such a big deal? Because it’s further evidence that the NCAA enforces rules selectively. USC is being punished not because they cheated (which is not open for debate), but because they cheated and then they won. Reggie Bush received illegal gifts. No one is naïve enough to believe that Bush is the only collegiate athlete to receive illegal gifts. I don’t have any data for this because they don’t exist, but I’d imagine that Bush is one of a majority of D1 collegiate football players (read “majority” as “more than 50%) who has accepted at least one thing that they didn’t legally pay for.

I think it’s likely that D1 football players, and probably at least basketball players too, everywhere have accepted a meal or a ride (USC had a player suspended for a game last season because of an illegally accepted golf cart ride) or even cash without being punished. Sure Reggie Bush accepted A HOUSE, which is a significantly bigger gift than a free meal, but both scenarios are illegal and both should be punished. I think Bush and the Trojans get hit the hardest not because the gifts are bigger but because the program is bigger. To say that the gifts Reggie Bush illegally received should be reprimanded without the same punishment going to other athletes who also received lesser — but still illegal — gifts is to admit that the rule enforcement is broken.

Sure, the idea that most collegiate athletes in the premier sports accept illegal gifts is not provable right now for someone with my accessibility. But I think anyone who knows anything about the issue will agree with me. If you want to discount that part of my argument, I can’t hold it against you. But the key crux of what I’m trying to say is not that athletes get things, it’s that the NCAA doesn’t treat every school the same in regards to these violations.

Take the recent Ohio State and Terrelle Pryor situation. It was determined that Pryor accepted illegal gifts before Ohio State’s bowl game last year. It was proven. It was for sure. Everyone knew it. And how did the NCAA punish it? They didn’t. They delayed the punishment until the next season to profit from Pryor’s appearance in a major bowl. The banned him from five meaningless games at the beginning of the following season. We know now that Pryor won’t actually miss those games because he’s leaving the school before the season starts. The NCAA knew that Pryor cheated. And they knew they were going to suspend him for it. But they didn’t do it when it was appropriate and now he’s not going to get punished at all.

Over/under on Cam Newton returning that Heisman: five years too late

Now consider Auburn last season. This is less concrete than the OSU case because Newton wasn’t really officially proven guilty. But again, this is something everyone knows happened. Cam Newton was paid to go to Auburn. He received money for it and his both he and his father knew about it. The NCAA knew it was probably true, but rather than investigate things, they allowed Newton to play in the NCAA Championship game. Newton is another case where a Heisman may end up being returned. It’s hard to say where it will go, but Cam Newton is another case of a suspected cheat at a high-profile program that may go unpunished for his rules violations.

What’s the unifying factor in the OSU and Auburn cases? No punishment. Literally no punishment. In Pryor’s case, it’s unacceptable. He was proven guilty and the NCAA chose not to punish him. In Newton’s case, he wasn’t proven guilty, but I can’t imagine that the NCAA was in any hurry to investigate the situation.

What is going to happen in the cases of all of three schools mentioned so far? The players and the coaches responsible are going to leave and then the players and coaches who follow are going to get punished. Maybe you think this is fair, but I don’t. Sure you could argue that you’re punishing the program, but what good is a punishment if you’re not punishing the individuals responsible for the violations? It just doesn’t make sense to me. It seems pretty obvious to me that the NCAA is acting way too late on these issues in order to avoid profitable players missing time.

To return to USC’s title stripping, what good was taking away the championship now? What does it do? All of the players on the field still went through the illegally-gotten title game and all of the following celebration. No one is really going to deny that USC won the championship that year. Sure the title is stripped, but nothing real is getting taken away. What happens when nothing real gets taken away? Nothing.

Seriously, if the problem is illegally paying players, the USC sanctions and title-stripping don’t solve the problem. If USC can’t sign as many players to scholarships, then those same players are going to go to another school, where they will (surprise) still get paid.

I wish I could say that I had a solution to this, but I don’t. Athletes receiving illegal gifts is a problem that has gotten so bad because of inappropriate enforcement of the rules for a long time. I think it’s pretty clear that as long as the NCAA keep focusing on what has happened in the past, nothing is going to get done about what is happening now or in the future. My serious solution to this is to just make it legal for athletes to get paid. It’s obviously naïve to keep pretending that these players aren’t tied to an enormous piece of the school’s revenue. They work hard for a whole bunch of hours, just like regular athletes or anyone with any job ever. And guess what? Their performance generates more money than is possibly imaginable for their schools. Why not let them enjoy the benefits of their hard work.

If you don’t like that idea, how about the NCAA stops worrying about what violations they have missed and start worrying about the violations with current players that they are missing.

And start enforcing the rules the same for everyone. If one school is going to get a title stripped because a player was illegal, then every school that has had a player receiving illegal gifts should have all their wins and any other accolades stripped too. Take away Ohio State’s wins from all the games Pryor played in. Take away their Big 10 Titles and give them to another team that hasn’t had any players receiving illegal gifts. You know what would happen then? No school would win that Big 10 title. Or any major conference title.

That’s a terrible idea, but hopefully you get what I’m saying: If there are going to be rules about players receiving gifts (I think it’s better to just not have them) then make the rules clear and enforce them all the same with every school.