Could It Be True – We Need the Death Penalty?

Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor opted to leave school rather than serve a five game suspension for violations

By Dan Rubin

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article posted on this website taking a number of schools to task in regards to their graduation rates on their college football programs.  I drew a direct line between the desire to make money and the desire to provide “student-athletes” with a means to getting a college degree, using their athletic skills to advance their abilities within the classroom.  I touched on how college football meant big money, that some schools transgressed, that it angered the NCAA, and ultimately, a few well-publicized slaps on the wrists would bring harmony back to college football, even if the graduation rates weren’t celebrated in the manner they should be.

The NCAA did land a few well-placed slaps on big college campuses, but it didn’t stop the big money, big-market programs from doing what they do best.  I’m not talking about their ability to draw hundreds of thousands of people to games, and I’m not talking about their ability to take in millions of dollars of revenue for their schools.  I’m talking about the other side.

The NCAA didn’t stop the cheating.

If you read no other part of this article, read this quote from legendary broadcaster Brent Musberger.  At the end of the ESPN Films 30 for 30 special on Southern Methodist University football, Musberger says it best.

“Every time I walk into a stadium, I think to myself – ‘they’re still keeping score,’ ” says Musberger.  “And as long as they’re keeping score, there will always be people who try to do everything they can to put up more points than the other guy.”

Brent Musberger, ladies and gentlemen, is a complete and utter genius.  The NCAA shuttered the SMU Mustangs for the 1988 season almost 25 years ago due to multiple, blatant infractions while under probation.  The move decimated the Mustangs program to the point where they didn’t field a team again until 1990, and they didn’t field a full complement of players until 1992.  Since then, they’ve only within the last few seasons returned to prominence and bowl games, enduring a nearly 20-year stretch of irrelevance.

The case, called the “Death Penalty” after the NCAA’s ruling, is unique in that it’s never been used at the Division I level since the SMU case.  The Death Penalty states that schools under probation for prior infractions can be shut down for up to two years due to continued infractions.  In short, SMU was shut down because it failed to comply with NCAA rules, then created a scenario where players were being paid so handsomely, corruption spread through the entire college.  It was a scandal causing the demise of the Mustangs program, the entire Southwest Conference, and the career of Texas governor Bill Clements, who also served as chairman of the SMU Board of Directors, and was a main reason the “pay-for-play” scheme continued at SMU.

Eric Dickerson runs with the ball for SMU. SMU got hit with the "Death Penalty" in 1987.

The death of SMU football sent shockwaves through the NCAA to the point where the governing body was almost scared by the power it held.  Since then, several schools in the nation faced the death penalty, most notably the Alabama Crimson Tide football team in the 1990s, but the NCAA never applied it, choosing instead to heavily sanction teams for their part in scandals.  In short, the NCAA, seeing the catastrophic results of destroying an entire program, couldn’t bring itself to do it again.

In light of recent events is difficult to comprehend the hesitance of the NCAA in certain cases, and is may be time for another Death Penalty ruling.

The level of corruption in college football runs so deep these days that it’s getting necessary for the NCAA to drop the Death Penalty on offending programs.  Since Auburn defeated Oregon to win the BCS National Championship, investigations of possible wrongdoings have affected both finalists, not including the most notable Ohio State case.  Other schools being investigated are North Carolina and Georgia Tech.  Prior to last season, USC was hit with sanctions, as was Michigan.  In the past few years, there have been scandals at Florida State and Alabama.  It seems like every team that enhances the quality of its program is doing so in a dirty fashion, and more than a few schools are buying into the axiom that “if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.”

The hardest pill to swallow in all of this is that probation and sanctions mean nothing to these schools.  USC was sanctioned last year due to the Reggie Bush scandal and denied the right to play in a bowl game.  The school still managed to bring in more than 80,000 fans to the Los Angeles Coliseum for four of their six home games (the other two still drew about 70,000 fans).  USC still spent most of the season ranked, and they still tallied one of the best recruiting classes in the nation.  The school did this under the auspices that they’re on probation until 2014 and cannot qualify for either a bowl game or the newly christened Pac-12 championship game.  They have a junior quarterback who is one of the most heralded recruits in the nation’s history, a kid who, next year when the bans are removed, could very possibly lead USC to the national title game and a Heisman Trophy.

Former USC running back Reggie Bush had to vacate his Heisman Trophy award after allegations of receiving improper benefits at USC.

Those infractions are light compared with some of the current scandals going on.  USC is feeling the effects of Reggie Bush’s improprieties.  Bush received illegal gifts totaling approximately $290,000.  USC was hit with tough sanction because Bush was high profile, so the school should have taken more steps to protect its star athlete from these circumstances.

USC, by and large, cooperated with the NCAA, with the penalties coming as a result of lack of knowledge and punishment for being stupid.  The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are a much different tale.

Georgia Tech was placed on probation in 2005 for using 11 ineligible players during that year’s football season.  The NCAA placed them on two years’ probation, reduced scholarship numbers, and vacated a number of Georgia Tech’s records.  The Yellow Jackets were also fined $5,000 for using ineligible players in multiple sports’ championships and bowl games.  They claimed to have made “major adjustments” to avoid this from happening again.

Yet in 2011, they were busted for having a player who received over $300 in free gifts from a sports agency employee.  The Yellow Jackets were slapped with four years’ probation, forced to vacate their wins from the final three games of the 2009 season (including a BCS-clinching win over Clemson), and fined $100,000.

The most egregious thing here is the NCAA’s punishment toward the university, which was only probation and a fine.  Georgia Tech had to give back its trophy from the 2009 ACC Championship, but at the same time, they were allowed to keep their share of the $18 million payout for playing Iowa in the Orange Bowl.  They didn’t cooperate, but yet they aren’t slapped with any scholarship restrictions.  The Yellow Jackets are now being placed back on probation less than four years after they just came off probation.

The universities clearly do not police themselves or do not try unless prompted by the NCAA.  Big money schools seem to fail to police their players, especially at schools where academics are denigrated as a result of their scholastic ineptitude.  With only this little bit being unearthed, we have to ask how much more is going on, especially with the repeated cycles of error these schools are displaying.

The NCAA is has done just as poor of a job as the schools.  The NCAA seems so afraid to make a move these days that it refuses to implement any strong sanctions.  The money from the Orange Bowl Georgia Tech made should have been demanded back by the NCAA.  When Fiesta Bowl officials were running around to strip clubs on the bowl game’s dime, the NCAA should have removed the Fiesta Bowl from the BCS and replaced it with another bowl such as the Cotton Bowl.  Why is the NCAA so hell-bent on keeping the status quo when it’s clear the status quo is a broken system?

The NCAA should also be rewarding school’s student-athletics that have a history of academic achievement.  Notre Dame is immensely popular, but they haven’t been really relevant since Charlie Weis took them to two BCS games (where they were crushed in both) and possibly back even further to the Lou Holtz era.  Notre Dame is living off of its past, when its present offers academic excellence.  The SEC is one of the worst conferences for offenses – Alabama is already on probation for violations and Auburn is barely escaping the Cam Newton scandal without a scratch right now.  Each school also brings in over 100,000 people per game, so the schools, in effect, don’t do anything to stop it.  Currently, LSU has been put on only one year of probation after major recruiting violations to get a junior college player.

Even after trying to clear up it's image by hiring Nick Saban, Alabama still had to vacate wins from 2005-2007.

Alabama had so many scandals from the 1990s to the early 2000s that they didn’t field a full class of scholarship football players from the mid-90s until 2001.  Then, after 2001, Alabama promptly vacated wins from 2005 and 2006 due to NCAA violations.  Then Nick Saban came along and Alabama still ended up having to vacate wins from previous seasons due to past violations.  Due to this, Alabama was placed on probation until June 2012.

Alabama and Georgia Tech are two classic football teams in the college landscape.  They’re two of the most tradition-rich schools around.  They also have committed violations almost immediately after coming off of probation.  Unlike SMU during the 1980s, who cheated so flagrantly that the NCAA shuttered the program, the two schools have been able to avoid the same punishment by technicalities.  Granted, Tech was never on probation before this, and they’ve always had a clean program in the NCAA’s eyes, but is it any shocker they were found guilty of violations almost immediately after their last probation ended?

As for Alabama, they nearly got the Death Penalty during the 90s.  They avoided it because the NCAA didn’t want to do to them what they did to SMU.  In my lifetime watching sports, Alabama has been on probation more than they’ve been off it.  Since 1995, Alabama has been on probation or has seen scholarship reductions in 12 of those 16 years.  As soon as they’ve come off of probation, they’ve immediately gone back on.  They’re a dirty program, from top to bottom, but the NCAA doesn’t have the guts to do anything to them because of rules’ technicalities.

Admittedly, I’m a huge Boston College fan.  Boston College, in 2009, self-reported a violation to the NCAA, which makes them guilty of breaking rules just like everyone else.  BC violated the rules last year when Luke Kuechly spoke publicly about a pair of high school teammates from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati coming to BC on a recruiting trip when they hosted Clemson.  The NCAA action was a simple rules education.

It was the first Boston College violation since a gambling scandal rocked the school in the mid-1990s.  In 1996, a number of players bet against their team in a game in which they were crushed by Syracuse.  Word was leaked after the 45-17 shellacking to then-head coach Dan Henning.  Henning reported it to school administrators, and after the university investigated, they threw six of 13 involved players off the team altogether.  The other seven were allowed to remain at the school but were suspended for the rest of the season.  The NCAA never got involved, and at the end of the season, Henning resigned in disgrace.  BC then took marked steps to make sure it never happened again, bringing in a head coach with a reputation for discipline.

Most people barely know about that scandal because Boston College did the right thing.  They cleaned up their program, suffered through 2-3 down years, and now rank as the team with the longest bowl streak in the nation.  Maybe some of these other schools could learn something about that.

Or maybe the NCAA could do its job and clean up college football.

2 thoughts on “Could It Be True – We Need the Death Penalty?”

  1. I’m a diehard Alabama Crimson Tide fan from my time living in Fosters, just outside of Tuscaloosa. While everything you say about the program did occur, you needlessly singled them out without making a point of shellacking every other program under investigation. For example the LSU scandal currently underway is a glaring instance of the NCAA backing off and accepting a school’s self-imposed sanctions when this type of violation should certainly warrant a season-long BCS ban from rankings and bowls. You also did not go into depth about the Ohio State scandal. While The Crimson Tide have certainly faced trouble, very little of that trouble is current and took place before the Nick Saban administration. Meanwhile we have a pay-for-play scandal implicating Auburn’s Cam Newton that may turn out to be another Reggie Bush scenario in a few years, and could possibly vacate Newton of his Heisman and Auburn of its championship.

    While I do not disagree with your overall point – (the NCAA absolutely should crush programs for violations, such as drop a D-I team down to the D-II or D-III levels for a certain amount of time and limit their funding) – you single out one school and make their violations unclear while right in front of our faces there are dozens of other schools in serious trouble at the moment. Currently, the Tide are the least of the NCAA’s concerns.

    Also, to the college football fan, we would be ignorant to think every school does not violate the rules on a season-to-season basis. The Musberger quote in the above article is perfect. As long as there is competition, there will be violations and every school will be doing anything it can to get a leg up. The absurdity that is National Signing Day only fuels the violations fire, as high-schoolers are commanding a nationally televised presence before they ever step foot on a college field, therefore bringing in big TV ratings and money for the schools they choose. Putting an end to the ridiculous televised signing day would likely help curb the recruiting violations to an extent. Every school will continue violating the rules, being extra careful not to get caught. A good pro example would be the Patriots illegally filming the Jets a few years back. Every team in the NFL tries to gain an edge, most of them simply do not get caught.

    I’m not saying it is right, because it isn’t. This is just the way things are, and hopefully the NCAA does step up and rigorously enforce change. For every program that goes under due to the death penalty, there will be a new, unheard of program to step up and garner fan interest.

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