The NCAA’s Near-Impossible Task: NCAA Rule Enforcement

The first games of the NCAA Tournament mark the most exciting time of the college basketball year.  It is, both literally and figuratively, the game’s “One Shining Moment.”  We shouldn’t, however, let the glitz and glam of “March Madness” be the new shiny toy in front of us that distracts us while the NCAA sweeps some of the more tarnished items under the proverbial rug.

The NCAA’s Near-Impossible Task: NCAA Rule Enforcement

Wednesday couldn’t possibly have symbolized this any more clearly.  On the same day March Madness kicked off, it was announced that Syracuse’s Athletic Director was dismissed, and head coach Jim Boeheim announced he was retiring … in three years.  Reason being: Syracuse was recently hit with major NCAA rules violations – stemming from several infractions, including improper benefits to players and academic shortcomings within the athletic dept. (specifically the basketball team) that occurred over the last decade.

Normally, the Syracuse Orange are a March Madness staple.  Since Boeheim first paced the sideline in 1976, his team has only missed the tournament eight times.  An incredible feat by any measure.  Plus, Syracuse is Boeheim’s Alma mater, he played guard for the Orange from 1962 through 1966.  So yeah, he’s kind of a big deal there.  One has to wonder if he was perhaps too big of a deal there, given the allegations against the university, and his involvement in them.  But this isn’t meant to pile on Boeheim and/or Syracuse while they’re weak.  There’s plenty written on Syracuse’s specific situation elsewhere.  Rather, this is meant to use Syracuse an example to show the complexities of the NCAA law enforcement procedure.

To start, the NCAA took away 108 wins away from Boeheim, and suspended him for the Orange’s first nine conference games next season.  Hardly a slap on the wrist.  But those 108 games the Orange won under Boeheim happened once upon a time, there’s game tape.  But as far as the NCAA is concerned, not so much.  The old cliche is that people who don’t know their past are bound to repeat it.  It’s unclear how that saying applies to entities that wave a magic wand and pretend that portions of that past didn’t happen.

Further, Syracuse was stripped of twelve scholarships over four upcoming seasons.  In other words: Athletic scholarships to Syracuse University are being revoked from potential student-athletes who are currently freshmen in high school; there’s twelve less athletic scholarships for students who don’t yet have driver’s licenses as a result of violations that took place while Barry Bonds was still hitting home runs for the San Francisco Giants.  This doesn’t seem too much unlike a police officer pulling over a speeding driver, ticketing them, then deciding the next car to go by is getting pulled over whether they’re speeding or not, just because the first car surpassed the speed limit.

Taking away future scholarships for past misconduct is commonplace with the NCAA and the way it polices its member schools.  In actuality, it’s pretty much the unofficial standard punishment for violations.  It’s important to note though, it’s not a team’s roster spots taken away, just scholarships.  Which is to say: Future spots that have money reserved for a program to provide tuition-free education to its student-athletes will instead be filled by walk-ons who will have to pay to play, and write a tuition check that could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars while they’re suiting up for their universities.

While this may not exactly be punishing the victims, the punished certainly don’t deserved to be grouped in with the guilty.  But under the status quo, this is almost the way it has to be.  Nobody would make the case these infractions should go unpunished.  The NCAA has to do its best to keep an even playing field, and have something to dissuade more violations and violators.  While their action(s) may be worthy of criticism, their inaction would lead to anarchy within the collegiate ranks, so it is a lesser-of-two-evils situation, and they justifiably side with action.

Ultimately, these are rules enacted by the NCAA and agreed upon by the member schools, in both lie the problems as well as the solutions.  (Although it may be hard to identify the problems because they exist in a past that (sort of) didn’t happen.)  For now, the best the NCAA can do is be as proactive as possible to keep everything on the up-and-up and work as closely as possible with its universities, all while maintaining the proper checks and balance.  Hopefully the day will come when college sports really are the exhilarating, fair, and noble competition it aspires to be and what we all want it to be.  When that happens, the NCAA can truly have its shining moment.