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If The NCAA Wants To Clean Up Sports, It Needs To Drop The Hammer

Jim Tressel.  Bruce Pearl.  Cam Newton.  Patrick Peterson.  Terrelle Pryor.  Auburn.  Tennessee.  Ohio State.  Southern Cal.  LSU.

Those are some of the most successful coaches, players and programs in college sports.  And all have recently been touched by some form of NCAA scandal.

Yet across the country, you’re more likely to hear someone say, “The NCAA is corrupt,” than to see fingers pointed at the players and coaches and programs actually doing the cheating.

It Isn’t Corrupt

The NCAA might have a bulky rulebook, but it’s not corrupt.  The rulebook, has been made thick in an effort to cover every potential loophole.  Yet when it came to Cam and Cecil Newton, most — including the NCAA president — believe a new loophole was exposed.  If you’re for closing that loophole, then you’re actually in favor of further “bulkifying” the NCAA’s rulebook.

The NCAA might be at the center of an outdated system, but it’s not corrupt.  When the NCAA was formed in 1906 college athletics weren’t bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars.  Now with everything from television contracts to licensing deals making schools rich, the NCAA is forced to try and oversee a big business, when it was created to do no such thing.  Big business… big difference.

The NCAA might stand accused of playing favorites, but it’s not corrupt.  In fact, for all the talk of “big schools” getting away with more, the NCAA’s actual track record over the last quarter-century shows that that’s just not the case.  Some of the biggest names in football and basketball have been slapped around pretty good since the mid-’80s.  The list of “big schools” hit hard includes Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn, Southern Cal, Oklahoma, Miami, Colorado, Memphis, Kansas, Illinois, Florida State, California and Texas A&M, to name a few.  The days of Cleveland State paying for Kentucky’s sins are no more.

The NCAA might be unpopular and unpredictable.  The NCAA might be slow to react in some areas and too quick to act in others.  And the NCAA might be an easy target for any fan, coach or administrator whose team just got caught cheating.  But the NCAA is not corrupt.

If anything, the NCAA is simply too small.  It’s too small to uncover cheating without the aide of rival schools and media members acting as snitches and detectives.  That means, of course, that it’s too small to catch all of the cheaters.  And that leaves people to moan about how their school is picked on while Rival U. is given a pass.

But there is a way to rein in cheating, at least to some extent.  Drop the hammer. 

Drop The Hammer

Unless the NCAA decides to spend more money on enforcement and investigations by hiring a bigger sleuthing staff, the idea of catching all the criminals will remain an absurdity.  Currently about 40 investigators are charged with watching over more than 1,000 schools.  Good luck with all that.

I’m often asked on radio shows how the NCAA can end cheating.  My typical response: In the same way that law enforcement officials can end stealing — they can’t.  Not completely.  Why more people don’t realize this, I’m not sure.  Possibly because the NCAA makes a more pleasing target for derision than the local schools and coaches caught breaking rules.  Rip the hometown team and your ratings drop.  Rip the NCAA for picking on schools and you’re cheered.

But the NCAA has a lot in common with law enforcement officials.  With a small enforcement staff, its best means for preventing crime is deterrence.  The same holds true for your local police force.

The boys in blue can’t pull over every speeder on the roadway, for example.  But they can pull over a few.  Those who are stopped are given pricey tickets.  If you don’t want to be hit with a hefty fine, you ease off the accelerator.  That’s how deterrence works.

But for the NCAA to truly deter cheaters, the organization needs to really drop the hammer on rulebreakers.  Yeah, that’s right.  The NCAA needs to get tougher.

If the NCAA were to create “mandatory minimums,” for lack of a better term, coaches and boosters might think twice before handing a player an envelope filled with greenbacks. 

Consider this: What if any major violation a school was found guilty of would automatically carry a 15% reduction in scholarships for a year?  In football, that would be 13 bodies gone for a season.  From 85 to 72 scholarships.  Period.  End of argument.  No tweaking.  No plea-bargaining.  Guilty of a major violation?  You lose of 13 scholarships. 

In basketball, a 15% reduction in scholarships would drop a roster from 13 players to 11.

And the penalties could up by a scholarship or two for each additional major violation a school commits.

How many schools would still weigh the risks of cheating versus the rewards if such a system existed?  Not as many as currently do, that’s for sure.

But in addition to dropping a heavier hammer, the NCAA also must create a greater fear of capture.  Drug tests are given at random.  The IRS pulls a number of tax returns each year for random audits.  A team’s bed checks are often done at random, too.  If the NCAA wants to scare the cheat out of programs, they should also go random. 

In addition to following the usual tips and leads, the governing body should pull a different Division I school’s name from a hat once a month.  The body should then outsource the initial dirt-gathering phase to a contracted third-party (in order to get around its current staffing issues).

If the preliminary sweep turns up any unscrupulous behavior, then the NCAA can launch a full-scale investigation.  If not, then the school breathes a sigh of relief. 

Either way, coaches and programs would have more incentive to stay clean.  With 12 schools getting random spot-checks each year, the odds of getting caught would rise.  And that is a further deterrence.

Gotta Scare ‘Em

I’m not a big fan of punishment.  That’s just not my thing.  But if the world of collegiate sports must be cleaned up, then punishment is the simplest method.

In a perfect world, the athletes could be paid and the biggest schools could break off from the NCAA and set-up a semi-pro system for football and basketball.  Someday that might happen.  But it couldn’t happen tomorrow.  Our fix could.

Tougher, harsher, scarier penalties for major violations.  Random investigations in addition to those brought about through tips.

Coaches and administrators aren’t dumb, folks.  If the risks of cheating outweighed the rewards of cheating, they’d do a lot less cheating.  So if the NCAA wants to clean up its sport, it needs to start dropping the hammer.


Proud Tiger
Proud Tiger

I also add, why do you mention Auburn in the same breath with Ohio St? Ohio St. has admited to violations. Auburn has not and has no reason to. Why do you have such negatice attitude toward Auburn. is is because we are the NC right now and you wish it wasn't true?


One other comment - states need to pass laws making "baiting" illegal, with stiff penalties. Otherwise, auto penalties simply encourage people to lure rival players into a major violation. There's enough money in play to make those laws justifiable - and they would simultaneously deter wanna-bes like Lake and Michaels at USC.


Automatic scholarship reductions have to take current kids into account, obviously. The penalties can't push kids out the door or leave them without a GIA. But that situation can be handled.

I think heavy penalties work. My school (UNC) fell asleep by thinking it couldn't happen to them. I hate to say it, but the next school that hires the next John Blake needs to think twice about it. And the next coach who's tempted to bury evidence that his star players are accepting free bennies needs to think twice, then twice more about it.

Right now, the conventional wisdom seems to be that the potential results make the risks worth it. That equation needs to change.


yea the ncaa could drop the death penalty on a team on probations, idk bama

Proud Tiger
Proud Tiger

I think someone nees to drop the hammer on people who make false accusations without ANY facts. What FACTS can you give to the NCAA that Auburn has been cheating? Are sources with no credibility given preference over honest people?


I think the Death Penalty should again come into play. That would scare the devil out of everyone. The boosters would even take notice. The thought of losing their beloved football program might deter them from the $500 handshakes. I also think any school caught cheating should automatically lose bowl play for a minimum of three years. Legislatures also need to get involved and make the paying of players a crime.
If a school deals with street agents that should be an automatic major violation. I heard Urban Meyer on College Football Live just this morning say that his first day one the job he was approached by a street agent at Dade County High School. This guy told him all players came through him. This is nothing more than human trafficking. These guys are getting paid by these schools to send kids their way. That's an ATROCITY. These guys should go to prison and the schools who pay them should go on probation.

Ray Steveadore
Ray Steveadore

John, It's not the schools or coaches in most cases that are the cheaters. It is the outside elements and if the schools had their choice it would not occur. So you are suggesting drop the hammer on innocent parties.. Wrong!!!!!!!!!!!!!! If the school or coaches commit the offense then by all means drop the hammer, but otherwise across the board , no way..... Be realistic... Not grabbing at straws. That is not the answer. The wrong people and athletes would get hurt the most.


Proud Tiger...

I think anyone with any objectivity can see that we've simply listed those schools have recently dealt with bad publicity due to allegations of rule breaking.

You're clearly a fan too blinded by his love of school to actually read what we write... instead of what you want to see.

This story had NO attitude toward Auburn. If you see one, then the chip on your shoulder is so large its affecting your field of vision.



Proud Tiger...

I'm sorry, but at what point in the story did you see me claim that Auburn has been cheating?

I believe I wrote that they had been touched by NCAA scandal, which is true. Heck, they've been touched by a couple of NCAA scandals. When your name appears in the press in connection with X amount of alleged violations, that's a scandal.

We also wrote that the Newton case exposed a loophole in the rulebook. The NCAA president and SEC commissioner have said the same thing.



  1. [...] John Pennington posts a mixed bag of suggestions on how the NCAA, with its limited enforcement resources, might better rein in bad behavior on the part of its member institutions.  One idea in particular has some merit for me. … But in addition to dropping a heavier hammer, the NCAA also must create a greater fear of capture.  Drug tests are given at random.  The IRS pulls a number of tax returns each year for random audits.  A team’s bed checks are often done at random, too.  If the NCAA wants to scare the cheat out of programs, they should also go random. [...]

  2. [...] on April 6th, we wrote the following column: “If the NCAA wants to clean up sports, it needs to drop the hammer.”In our view, the only way to truly begin to curtail cheating is to scare the living hell out of [...]

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