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Lessons From the UCF Infractions Case

Because of the Penn State scandal, we seem to have forgotten about some of the other cases working their way through the normal NCAA channels. The University of Miami is still being investigated. North Carolina might be back in front of the Committee on Infractions as a possible academic fraud scandal gets deeper and deeper by the week. Oregon’s recruiting service violation has not been heard from in quite a while, but also has not gone away.

Then there was Central Florida. What UCF was accused of was, on its face, one of the worst packages of NCAA violations in recent memory. Not only were both of its revenue sports using a runner (among others) to help recruit athletes and that runner was providing benefits to student-athletes, but all of this was with the knowledge, encouragement, and even active participation of the athletic director.

For all that, UCF got off relatively light. Twin postseason bans, scholarship losses and major recruiting restrictions are not a slap on the wrist. But considering the conduct, it could and should have been much worse. The NCAA would have been justified in laying to waste both of UCF’s most prominent sports for the rest of the decade. Instead, UCF had significant but manageable sanctions for the next few years. We can also glean a little more from the case.

1. The Committee on Infractions is Sort of Going Through the Motions

After the USC case, everyone expected the worst for UNC, UCF, and Miami. For two of the three schools, that has not materialized. Despite scandals that were all but inarguably worse, both UCF and UNC escaped with lighter penalties. Add in Ohio State and a pattern starts to emerge: schools are getting a headline-grabbing postseason ban, notable but not crippling scholarship penalties, and the individuals involved are getting lengthy show-cause orders. At this point, despite the sheer length and money involved with the Miami scandal, I would expect something similar.

I suspect that the Committee on Infractions is, like all of us, waiting for the new enforcement structure. Essentially we are about a year from pressing the reset button on major infractions cases, so these cases, as bad as they are, will not be have much meaning after August 1, 2013. Hence the motive to dispose of them without the pressure of pointing the NCAA in a direction it might have to follow for the next decade. The result: a relatively standard package of penalties that looks imposing on paper but which smart programs will be able to recover from fairly rapidly.

Speaking of USC…

2. There is No Longer a Good Theory for the USC Case

There are certainly plenty of conspiracy theories about why USC received one of the stiffest set of sanctions ever handed down in Division I. Chief among them is after years of not being able to get enough evidence to bring the case against the Trojans, the enforcement staff and the Committee on Infractions had to send a message that they were not going to let USC get away with it. But even if we assume this is true, there still needs to be a more appropriate explanation.

The best reasoning had been that ultimately USC was a recruiting case, not an amateurism case. By creating an environment that allowed Reggie Bush and OJ Mayo to receive thousands of dollars of extra benefits, USC got a huge recruiting boost. The message was “come here, you don’t need to worry about those pesky NCAA rules, we don’t mind.”

If that was the core of the USC case, UCF should have gotten the death penalty. Not only was that the culture created at UCF, but the athletic director was involved as an integral part of creating that culture. Southern California might have had a laissez-faire attitude about who was in the locker room or around recruits, but the evidence that the school was actively promoting the violations was tenuous. No such problem at UCF.

The only plausible explanation now is that the USC case did not just involve a high profile athlete at a high profile program. Rather, it involved the highest profile athlete at the highest profile program. But that’s not much to explain these differences. More and more, USC looks like an aberration, a one-time case not to be repeated.

3. Show-cause Orders Are Still More Art than Science

The show-cause orders issued to former athletic director Keith Tribble and to head basketball coach Donnie Jones look impressive because they are three years long. Most people who watch NCAA enforcement see that as a three-year long ban on getting another job, if not a career-ender.

But show-cause orders should be judged just as much by the restrictions in them as their length. We cannot point to a lack of morals or poor culture in college athletics and then expect a scarlet letter to work. A show-cause order should be measured on how well it prevents someone from doing their job, not how bad it might look to hire them.

Tribble is only prevented from having contact with recruits during the period of his show-cause order. Jones is only prohibited from recruiting off-campus during the July 2013 recruiting periods. Having prospects meet with the athletic director is a nice touch on visits, but not a core part of his job. And by this time next year, there are no restrictions on Jones’ at all.

That means the effectiveness of those show-cause orders is a bet that no one will hire Tribble or Jones not because they will be hampered in doing their jobs, but because it would be bad PR. Culture cannot be something that needs to be changed and the weight behind a penalty at the same time. Show-cause orders need to be about the restrictions first, and the length second.

What do you think is a fair penalty for the programs currently under NCAA review?  Let us know in the comments section below, or connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+!

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