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What Do We Want The NCAA To Do?

It's time for the NCAA to transcend being just 4-letters or some cartel of willing sports playing universities and colleges and instead develop an identity.
It's time for the NCAA to transcend being just 4-letters or some cartel of willing sports playing universities and colleges and instead develop an identity.

This isn't another Penn State article, or at least, not exactly. You're tired of reading them, and lots of sportswriters are tired of writing them. The story is beyond depressing, we've already had our public "two minute hate", and many have become rightfully wary of sportswriters trying to out-outrage each other in their desperate climb for the highest of high grounds. If you want an arbitrator of right and wrong, may I suggest paying a visit to church, reading about legal history, or really, doing just about anything, instead of reading a Rick Reilly column?

The public discussion seems to have shifted a little away from Paterno, whose legacy has already been judged in the court of public opinion as irreparably sullied, and towards what an appropriate punishment might be. While State College is staring down the potential barrels of the Department of Education's guns*, not to mention a litany of lawsuits that could end up being infinity dollars, some say the NCAA should also unleash "The Death Penalty", and shut down the football program for a while. Others, including our esteemed headman, believe that such an action would be outside the purview of the NCAA. That is an important question, and since this is the offseason, I'm sure you can find lots of other people who will harrumph over it. I think it misses potentially more important questions though, that have implications with every sport going forward.

What should the scope of the NCAA's powers be? What do we actually want the organization to do?

The idea that the NCAA exists to protect fair play and amateurism isn't completely self-evident if you just look at their punishment and enforcement mechanisms. School departments spend hundreds of thousands on costly lawyers who comb through arcane regulations that cover the tiniest detail of student athlete lives. Buying a beer for your buddy on the track team could be a violation. Sharing textbooks with broke-ass gymnasts may end up being a violation. Twitter accounts are potential violations. Schools have to spend money and time on educating their players and staff on the rules, complying with the tiniest of details, and on reporting when somebody forgets to cross a T or dot an I.

Then, when those mistakes inevitably pile up, the NCAA spins the wheel-of-punishment. Bowl Ban? Scholarship loss? Slap on the wrist? It isn't totally clear what violations will lead to what kind of punishment, or when the punishments get levied, which may be more maddening than the regulations themselves. Any businessman will tell you that while regulations can be annoying, its regulatory uncertainty that really drive them crazy. You can't plan for the unknown. I think that a primary reason for this confusing system is that the NCAA doesn't really know what the hell they're supposed to do. Let me help.

My ideas depend on the assumptions that the idea of promoting and protecting amateurism is actually a worthy endeavor. If you don't agree with this, then it probably makes more sense to get rid of the whole thing, and just have minor leagues, or have schools straight up bid on recruits. Get it all out in the open and all. That is a different article I think.

So what should the NCAA worry about then? One, I think the NCAA needs to make sure that accountability applies to everybody in the athletics hierarchy, not just the players. When a player screws up, he loses part of his eligibility, or he stings his entire program with heavy sanctions. With few exceptions, coaches and administrators can jump from job to job with impunity. Associations with sketchy boosters are not a crime limited to just those in pads, and there is no reason that those in suits and ties should escape punishments just because they're a little higher on the food chain. The Show Cause penalty should be employed more liberally with coaching staff members and university administrators, to force them to stick around and clean up their messes. Jay Bilas wrote an interesting article recently suggesting the same thing.

Furthermore, this consistency should extend to transfers. If coaches are going to have the freedom to change employers nearly at will, then this should be extended to athletes (like students who aren't athletes). If not, then coaches should have similar transfer restrictions. Liberalizing transfer rules can help the NCAA regain a modicum of credibility as it claims to have the interests of students at heart, and will free up resources to continue to investigate far more pressing concerns. In a competitive labor marketplace, no manager would be able to craft a non-compete as strict as something Bo Ryan might draw up.

Second, the NCAA should place a priority on consistency and expediency. Miami (and North Carolina to a lesser extent for ostensible repeat violations which we're still not sure how they fit into the context of previous violations) sit in limbo, as it is unclear when and how hard the NCAA will come down on them. OSU's last season was a total wash for the same reason. Institutions need to know what will happen if they break certain rules, and should be able to have a speedy answer to investigations. If the NCAA needs to hire a ton of new investigators, then they should; it's not like its budget cutting season for them.

One of the biggest lessons I learned about enforcing rules came from when I taught 4th grade. Kids accept strict punishments, they may actually ask for them, but if they are not consistently applied, there is nothing that could cause more resentment, or caused me to lose more credibility. Schools will have a strong incentive to push the envelope if a prompt if X than Y relationship isn't spelled out.

Finally, if we believe that the NCAA is to protect fair play, amateurism ,and the education of student athletes, then an institutional culture aspect should also play a role. Ideally, a situation of Penn State's scope will never happen again, but if it should, the NCAA should be able to step in; from giving students an out to transfer without repercussions after a university tragedy or scandal, to temporarily removing an offending school until they can get everything straightened out.

Not doing anything can risk such a public relations backlash that even higher powers may feel they need to get involved, namely state governments and Congress. Washington D.C. has been willing to hold multiple hearings on baseball, as well as the BCS, and with the NCAA already under scrutiny, they may find themselves one more faux pass away from a congressional hearing, something that nobody (particularly most tax payers) wants.

Ideally, we can pull ourselves away from the Pharisee-like laser focus on the tiny details, and towards the bigger picture goals of what we want college sports oversight to be about. If we do it right, we can have a reliable, consistent set of rules, that will make everything flow much sooner, and reduce incentives to cheat.

It would also reduce moralizing pontification from the pressbox at the top of the ivory tower. That's something we all want to work towards.

*sidenote--while the Feds will have legal recourse to intervene due to Cleary Act violations, I think it is much more likely that they will sanction PSU in the form of fines, rather than the 'nuclear option' of cutting off federal funding. Penn State is, as the largest university and a major employer in such a political important state, simply too big to fail. If this scandal happened at some backwater, 3rd tier public school, it would be a different story.