Wednesday, December 15, 2010

NCAA: “National Chaotic Athletic Association”

image Gary Parrish of has a blog post up, where he discusses the comments given by NCAA president Mark Emmert to a group of reporters in Indianapolis late yesterday.  The gist of Parrish’s post is that Emmert believes coaches should be held to the same standards as student-athletes when they are caught lying to investigators looking into potential violations of NCAA bylaws.

Emmert's comments came in the middle of an informal and wide-ranging conversation at St. Elmo Steak House here in Indianapolis with nine reporters from various national media outlets. His opinion on the subject is relevant because of the ongoing investigation into Tennessee's basketball program given that Bruce Pearl has already acknowledged lying to an NCAA investigator when initially asked about a photograph that proved he hosted a recruit at his home in violation of NCAA rules. Emmert repeatedly explained that he could not specifically discuss ongoing investigations, and that no two cases are alike. But when asked if a college coach who lies should be held to the same standard as a student-athlete who lies -- and when reminded that former Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant was suspended all of last season after lying to the NCAA -- Emmert said, "We certainly want to uphold the standards for coaches -- who are the teacher and the authority figure in that relationship -- to at least the same standards that we hold our students."

"All these situations are case-specific, so you can't easily or appropriately generalize," Emmert said. "But I want to make sure that we're creating an environment where coaches and universities are appropriately rewarded for good behavior and punished for bad behavior. I know that sounds silly and tripe. But we do need to have a situation where when coaches … are committing major infractions the penalties will be significant enough that they serve as a discouragement to that kind of behavior."

There are several very high profile cases going on right now, in which coaches, student-athletes or both may have been less than candid with investigators. The league is currently investigating a mess of an agent infiltration in the University of North Carolina’s football program. They have also been investigating the University of Tennessee’s men’s basketball program, where Head Coach Bruce Pearl has admitted that he lied to investigators about illegally hosting a recruit at his home, and of course the breathtaking saga taking place at Auburn University and Mississippi State University, where current Auburn quarterback is embroiled in an alleged pay-for-play scandal.

Emmert’s belief—that coaches should be held to at least as high a standard as the student-athlete—is a valid one.  Coaches are supposed to be the responsible adults and example setters, so if they’re caught lying to investigators, the punishment should be at least as severe as what would be handed down to student-athletes who break the rules and lie about it.

But there is a fatal flaw in how the NCAA treats the cases it investigates and how it decides punishment for violations. That flaw is expressed by Emmert himself, and in virtually every statement, press release or blog post from NCAA representatives.  Here it is, from Emmert himself yesterday:

"All these situations are case-specific, so you can't easily or appropriately generalize.”

Imagine if the criminal justice system were modeled like this, where no two cases are ever treated similarly. No two serial killers would be given life in prison without parole or the death penalty. What about two mob bosses convicted of extortion, money laundering, illegal gambling and drug trafficking? Don’t they both get life in the federal lockup? Not in the NCAA model.

Each state has a standard way of dealing with repeat offenders. The first offense is treated the same way throughout the state. The second offense is dealt with more harshly, but identically. The third offense might result in a life sentence (depending on the state), but there is a standard procedure to be followed. This produces a criminal justice system that is ordered, understandable and predictable.

The NCAA’s “all cases are different” approach is the diametric opposite of order and predictability. In fact, if there’s one thing that’s consistent with the NCAA’s investigative and punitive procedures, it’s that there’s no consistency whatsoever.  The result is chaos.

A kid at one school accepts a ride in a golf cart from someone who turns out to be an agent. That kid is ruled ineligible. Another kid’s dad shops him around for hundreds of thousands of dollars, lies about it at first, then finally cops to pimping his son. That kid doesn’t miss a down. One kid’s dad accepts a plane ticket from an inappropriate source and is ruled ineligible, even though the kid had absolutely no clue about his father’s transgression. The kid whose dad was pimping him to the highest bidder says he didn’t know what his father was doing, and he gets to skate?

It leaves everyone—from the other college programs to the media to the everyday fans—scratching their heads and going “WTF?” It’s utter chaos.

When a governing body with the power to investigate the governed and impose penalties on violators says “no two cases are alike,” it creates an environment for arbitrary (some say even capricious) interpretation of applicable rules. It’s akin to a criminal justice system that executes jaywalkers and lets violent thugs walk the streets. It lets investigators, prosecutors and judges look for and find loopholes where none exist. It lets them make it up as they go along.

Until the NCAA learns to treat similar cases similarly, the chaotic methods of the league are going to create a lot more WTF moments.