Sunday, June 19, 2011

The NCAA's All but Death Penalty

“I am become death, the destroyer of programs,” the NCAA has unleashed its own variant of Shiva’s famous line in Verse 32:11 in the Bhgavad Gita. The fearsome NCAA “death penalty” that SMU made famous has terrified and paralyzed the NCAA for decades. Using it resembled the nuclear option and the NCAA shied away from it and everyone knew it. Now the NCAA has figured out the way to destroy programs without resorting to the death penalty. Developing and deploying the NCAA Shiva option is critical if the NCAA has any chance of gaining control of the football and basketball corruption.

The NCAA Shiva option must be present, real and feared by major programs. Only this real present danger will elicit the  vigilance and focus from college Presidents, athletic directors and high profile coaches. Right now thanks to the cult of the head coach, all are usually immune to the consequences of their wrong doing. 

The power of this approach depends upon existing and being used, unlike the death penalty.  Here the NCAA has an institutional design problem. The President, Mark Emmert, would apply the option quickly and widely, but the NCAA President does not have much power beyond the bully pulpit. The real power lies in the enforcement wing of the NCAA that must identify and investigate. Above all else the power resides with the Committee on Infractions which holds the hearings and hands down the judgements. The President has some control over the enforcement staffing and budget and energy of the but none over the obstreperously independent Committee on Infractions.

The final denouement of the USC case establishes the unassailable option for the NCAA. USC’s appeal was turned down. Now the BCS (acting remarkably like a higher order NCAA) stripped USC’s national championship. This adds to the Heisman stripping of the Reggie Bush’s award. The ancillary groups that depend upon NCAA for visibility and legitimacy will follow their lead.

The Shiva option levels an array of sanctions that will cripple a high profile program for up to five years. It begins by levellingl a program with major scholarship loss; not a piddly couple scholarships like APR penalties, but real impacts over time. The sanctions should target 10-20% of scholarships over a two to three year period. This undermines the talent pipeline and gives others a chance to swarm in and counter recruit against the program.  Finally it vacates the games and championships where players or coaches played illegally.

The Shiva option relies upon humiliating and dragging out the process to impact the immune Presidents and to get the message to recruits  that the program will be deeply wounded. The drawn out process reminds all the other cheating and tempted to cheat coaches and athletic directors about the media water boarding that will accompany the process. The public process also draws out the costs and pain to the Presidents who willfully ignore or abet, sometimes both, the autonomy and cultures of athletic programs. Finally, the option should force the removal of the coaches involved and tag sanctions to the coach that will impact whomever hires him or her the next time.

The formal sanctions and process then produce a set of side effects that can be just as important. Institutions facing their own lies and cheating will throw overboard coaches and athletic directors to demonstrate their belated commitment to integrity. One by one a university will toss people overboard to curry favor with the Committee on Infractions. USC provides a typical example—first the basketball coach; then football coaches as needed, but Pete Carroll had already skipped town; then the AD.  Rutgers followed the same path—football coach then athletic director. This week Tennessee belatedly manifest the same pattern—assistant basketball coaches, then basketball coach and now the athletic director Mike Hamilton  (Hamilton reveals a great flaw in modern athletic reasoning where the AD is hired to raise money and build facilities when in fact his or her most important job is hiring good coaches. Hamilton revealed he was a lousy judge of character in hiring both Bruce Pearl and Lane Kiffin.)

So the Shiva option’s existence leads to serious punishment and job loss to coaches and athletic directors before the NCAA Enforcement Board even meets to judge them.  So far Boards of Regents have let the Chancellors and Presidents who hired the athletic directors and  often help hire the big money coaches off the hook.

The Shiva option has two strong attractions. First, it scares institutions into abandoning and punishing the coaches and senior administrators. Second, the structure of penalties can be designed to hurt programs for 5 year time periods where the blood in the water aspect of bleeding programs who cannot offer players national championships and media exposure, can be out-recruited. This compounds the initial penalties.  

Emmert has pledged to beef up and infuse aggressive energy into enforcement staff. Now the Committee on Infractions controls they demonstrated remarkable courage and power with USC; they missed the boat with letting Michigan off with a handslap, but the next several months will tell us in the new Shiva approach will continue. If it continues, it has a real chance of actually catching the attention of coaches and athletic directors.

Now the precedents are set, the options in place. Tennessee and North Carolina are in line. Auburn and Connecticut are waiting in the wings. The next true test of the Shiva option—Ohio State. As Gordon Gee and Gene Smith play Polonius and Hamlet, the destroyer of programs is waiting for them.


  1. The NCAA is divided into different cabinets and committees, each consisting of representatives of each member. These various institutions under the control of the "management councils", which in turn consists of representatives from the schools as well as representatives of the athletes.

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