One of the fallouts of the news that a school reported a secondary violation for a women's golfer who used a university hose and water to wash her car has been that the NCAA responded with a determination that it did not consider this to be a violation. That has lead to its brand of backlash, that this not being a violation is still an indictment of the NCAA. Schools are so afraid of the NCAA, the theory goes, that they feel compelled to report things that are not even violations.
But we know that coaches and administrators make mistakes with the rules all the time. Schools collectively report thousands of those mistakes each year as secondary violations. Those violations are normally not the result of cheating, but have good explanations. The causes are varied, from the rules being complex and ever-changing to an incorrect interpretation, or even just simple forgetfulness.
Schools also follow the same pattern in the other direction, deciding something is prohibited when it is in fact permissible. This type of mistake typically express itself as compliance telling a coach they cannot do something, so they do not do it. Or a coach not doing something that is actually permissible. So there is no event like a violation that makes the news.
To see this in action, ask a college coach or even a compliance professional if a coach may call a nonqualifier in the first year at a junior college. Many in college athletics mistakenly believe that all forms of contact, including phone calls, are not permitted with this group of prospects. The rule though is that all in-person contact is prohibited, while phone calls are allowed.
The process likely used for this violation also helps explain how a violation can be reported and a penalty imposed for something the NCAA says is not against the rules. Contrary to convention wisdom (unfortunately pushed by the NCAA), violations are not simply grouped into major and secondary infractions. Secondary violations are currently split into two categories: Level I and Level II. When the new enforcement program becomes effective in August these categories will become Level III and Level IV violations respectively.
Level II secondary violations are not reported to the NCAA. They are reported to a school's conference, which then compiles the self-reports and forwards them to the NCAA at regular intervals. There is even a class of violation where the eligibility of an athlete is affected that are not reported to the NCAA, called restitution violations. In these cases, the athlete's eligibility is immediately restored upon repaying the benefit received, and the athlete does not need to wait for formal reinstatement by the NCAA.
Combine differing interpretations of NCAA rules with a process that does not involve the NCAA and it does not take a sinister motive to explain why a violation was reported and a penalty imposed for a non-violation. The final element in a case like this is the need for a quick resolution. If an athlete might be ineligible, but needs to compete in the very near future, the decision of the school and conference might be to just assume the athlete is ineligible and get them reinstated first, then ask questions later.