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The New NCAA Penalty Matrix: The NCAA Finally Gets It Right

With the new proposed punishments, the NCAA finally has come up with a solution to widespread instittional program violations...

The way that the NCAA has imposed sanctions on member institutions has long been a source of frustration for this sports writer. There are many reasons for which one could criticize the NCAA's enforcement arm. But the most significant one in my mind has always been that, on the whole, they are completely ineffective. I'll spare you the long history lesson discussing the fits and starts that the NCAA has been through in an attempt to police infractions. Suffice it to say that the process has never been easy, nor has it worked particularly well. The NCAA has always yo-yoed between complete inability to police program behavior and harsh punishments with vastly underestimated consequences. Fortunately, with the model introduced just a few weeks ago, they finally seem to have gotten it right.

I've always thought, though, that after the NCAA came down hard on SMU in the late 1980's they got a little bit gun-shy. For those who don't remember, the Mustangs drew the ire of the NCAA for a massive pay-to-play scandal in their football program. The result? At the time, the most severe penalty the NCAA had in its toolbox: the Death Penalty. The NCAA prohibited SMU from having a football team for the 1987 season, and the University ultimately extended that ban to the 1988 season as well. SMU also got hit with severe scholarship reductions (55 over 4 years) as well as reductions in the number of assistant coaches it was allowed to hire. Perhaps the most important part of the ban, though, was that the NCAA allowed most current SMU players who were affected by the ban to transfer to other universities. The upshot of all this was that SMU was left with few scholarship players, no ability to recruit for two years, and restricted recruiting until the 1992 season, four years after the penalty had been handed down.

The total effect of the punishment was that the SMU football program essentially disappeared for two decades. The Mustangs only returned to and won a bowl game in 2009, and it's only been since that season that they've been at all relevant in college football. And they are still quite a far way from being a national title contender like they were in the 1980s. While it seemed clear that the NCAA wanted to severely punish the SMU program (a program that it had deemed was essentially completely out of control), I don't think they were prepared for the lasting effects of their decision. It's telling that the Death Penalty has only been applied twice since the SMU scandal, and only to programs in Division II and III. The nearest recent incident was the scandal at the Baylor men's basketball program in the mid-2000s, but the NCAA declined to use the Death Penalty there, citing the institution's own response.

What ultimately happened to Baylor was a reduction in scholarship players - from 11 to 7 - but despite this they managed to reel in a top ten recruiting class immediately following the imposition of the penalty. And, if you've been following this year's college basketball season, it's clear that the Bears have suffered no substantial long term impact.

That is, in a nutshell, the problem with the current NCAA enforcement mechanism. Because the NCAA is unwilling to use their harshest penalty, any sanctions handed out seem to have little to no longterm affect on the biggest programs. Baylor is an example in the basketball world, but one need only look at football powers USC and Ohio State to know that the problem extends to football as well. Yes, USC has been suffering a reduction in scholarships and a post-season ban since they were sanctioned for the Reggie Bush fiasco, but what good has it really done? They are seen as a top five team for the 2012 season (when they will once again be post-season eligible) with possible national title aspirations. Ohio State? Sure they're bowl banned for this upcoming season, but they just landed one of the best available coaching talents out there in Urban Meyer. Even with scholarship reductions, does anyone seriously think that the Buckeyes will be out of the BCS picture for long?

Enter the new NCAA penalty matrix. At the NCAA conference on January 14th, an NCAA working group devised a new enforcement matrix that takes into account both the type of violation as well as aggravating and mitigating factors to determine an appropriate punishment for a violating institution. It's similar, in my mind, to the federal sentencing guidelines that determine prison sentences for crimes tried in federal court. The actual report released by the working group is dense, and the chart attached is clear as mud. Fortunately, CBS Sports waded through the categories to come up with a nice comparison between the old and new punishments, using the Reggie Bush affair as an example.

What we see is this: in terms of a post-season ban, the football program would have suffered an extra year of ban, while the Men's Basketball program would have seen an additional two year post-season ban. The monetary fine suffered by the school would have been calculated on a %-of-budget basis, which would have nearly doubled the imposed penalty. Rather than losing 10 scholarships overall in football, the school would have lost 32-42. They also would have seen a 37.5%-50% reduction in all recruiting activity, as opposed to the loss of a single traveling coach and 20 "recruiting person days" they did see. In addition, the show-cause time period for the involved coaches and probation period for the program would have been extended.

The biggest change here is clearly in the scholarship reduction. An additional year or two of post-season ban would seem to be... relatively inconsequential. Rather than talking about USC as a national contender in 2012, we would merely be discussing it in 2013 or 2014. Similarly, I can't see much real benefit to a reduction in "recruiting activity." That's only because of the nature of the institution in question. USC is a program that is well known enough by recruits that, while they certainly have to work to lure top talent from other marquee programs, it's not as though recruits are going to forget who the Trojans are. Any real recruiting impact would come from the reduction in scholarships that USC was able to offer, as well as the post-season ban (by, perhaps, dampening interest from recruits who don't want to spend their entire college career bowl-banned), with the latter effect dissipating one or two years prior to the expiration of the ban.

But that scholarship reduction. That right there is severe. And perhaps one of the best things about the proposed penalty matrix. It doesn't have the unintended adverse consequences of a death penalty - the football program is still allowed to exist, so it's unlikely that under the proposed penalties USC would be in the doldrums for two decades or more -- but it has more bite than a reduction of ten scholarships. With a penalty like this, I doubt USC would be so quick to bounce back from its sanctions. Rather than seeing them as national champion favorites as soon as their post-season ban lifted, we would probably be looking at two to four years of upward trajectory and middling bowl bids before we were talking BCS dominance.

And that can only be considered a good thing. For large-scale violations to cease, member institutions need to actually be concerned about the penalties facing them. Much as with a toddler who knows their parents won't really hold them to that hour long timeout, Division I schools know that the NCAA isn't currently prepared to really impact their program for the long haul. As it stands these days, the Death Penalty won't be imposed, and the current scholarship reductions, while bothersome, aren't significant enough to really hurt a top tier program. But if this proposed penalty matrix is implemented, we might finally see a punishment that fits the crime.