Time was you knew the sketchy neighborhoods in college athletics.
The Southeastern Conference and the old Southwest Conference – basically the states of Texas and Oklahoma – were outlaw territory. Schools went on an off probation like workers changing shifts at a power plant. According to folklore, gossip and the NCAA Committee on Infractions, there were two kinds of programs in those leagues at those times: those that were caught cheating and those that hadn't been caught yet.
Today, the scofflaw geography has changed. The Big Ten can put on quite a perp walk, as can the Atlantic Coast Conference. Out in the Pac-12, Oregon may replace USC in the NCAA pokey. Before Syracuse exits the Big East for the ACC, it likely will have to face NCAA justice for failures of its drug-testing policy in regard to men's basketball. And we already know about Connecticut basketball.
It's suddenly a lot harder for one power league to claim moral superiority over another.
According to the NCAA legislative services database of major infractions, one-third of the Big Ten currently is on probation: Michigan for football abuses under Rich Rodriguez; Ohio State for Jim Tressel's cover-up of TattooGate; Nebraska for a multi-sport textbook snafu; and now Penn State for the sins of Jerry Sandusky and its subsequent breakdown in ethics and leadership.
Total years probation for those four schools: 13. Both the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions face a postseason football ban for 2012, which basically turns the Big Ten Leaders Division into Wisconsin and the three dwarves (Illinois, Purdue and Indiana). And as we know, Penn State is bowl-banned and scholarship-stripped from now until sometime into the 22nd century.
Those four also happen to be the flagship football programs in the league in terms of all-time accomplishments.
Now compare that rap sheet to the SEC, where the stereotype of lawlessness has been popular for a long time. There are two schools currently on probation: Tennessee for the Bruce Pearl barbecue fiasco and South Carolina for its cushy hotel housing arrangement for football players, plus some booster shenanigans involving football and basketball. (LSU came off a one-year football probation last week.)
Total years probation: five. Postseason bans: zero. Scholarship reductions: zero. The SEC dodged a mighty big bullet when Cam Newton scrambled through a loophole in 2010 to remain eligible, but right now there is no question which is the cleaner league in the eyes of the NCAA.
There was a time when Big Ten fans chafed by the SEC's relentless winning in football at least had image to fall back on when comparing the two conferences. Not anymore. Now the last recourse is complaining about SEC schools overbooking scholarships.
Over the past decade the SEC has gotten in more trouble than the Big Ten, but not by a wide margin. There have been 12 major infractions cases involving 10 SEC schools since 2002, resulting in a total of 36 years' probation and four years of postseason bans (two years for Alabama football and one each for Mississippi State and Kentucky, which didn't get much bang for their infractions buck). In the same span the Big Ten has had 10 major infractions cases involving nine schools, resulting in 30 years' probation and five years of postseason bans (four for Penn State and one for Ohio State).
And even with the SEC engaging in an orgy of impermissible activity from 1989-2004 (20 major infractions cases in those 15 years), Jim Delany's Big Ten hasn't lagged too far behind. Since he became commissioner in '89, the Big Ten has had 21 major NCAA cases. The SEC has had 26.
In today's terms, the conference pushing the Big Ten for bad boy honors is the ACC. Three schools are on probation – Florida State, Georgia Tech and North Carolina, for a combined total of 11 years and a one-year postseason ban for the Tar Heels. But that doesn't include what's currently swirling at two schools.
[Derek Samson: Miami football in trouble on the field and off it]
Miami is deep in an NCAA investigation of widespread potential major violations committed by imprisoned booster Nevin Shapiro, many of them allegedly involving Hurricanes staff. Then came news last week, via Yahoo! Sports, that current coach Al Golden may have committed additional violations shortly after taking the job. For a school that already has had major NCAA infractions cases with multiple sports in the 1950s, '60s, '80s, '90s and last decade, this is not a good development.
And there is the ongoing academic stink at North Carolina, where even amid the NCAA investigation last year football players were being herded into no-show summer classes. Sources told Yahoo! Sports last week that the NCAA has said to UNC it will not revisit the most recent revelations of academic misconduct, labeling them a university issue and not an NCAA issue. But that was before the Penn State ruling.
If president Mark Emmert was able to ignore the rules manual and standard enforcement protocol in the Penn State case, might he be tempted to cowboy up on a school that seems to be exhibiting persistent academic fraud?
There are plenty of NCAA crooks elsewhere in the power conferences, too.
The Pac-12 has four schools on probation (California for men's basketball, Arizona State for baseball, USC for the Reggie Bush-O.J. Mayo exacta and Arizona until July 29 for men's basketball), with Oregon football potentially on deck. Three Big 12 schools are on probation (Baylor for men's and women's basketball, Texas Tech for text-messaging issues in multiple sports, and Oklahoma for men's basketball – the Sooners' third probation since 2006). And just because you don't still consider the Big East a power league doesn't mean they're not skirting rules like one, with three on probation (Connecticut basketball, West Virginia football dating to the RichRod days and Cincinnati football and women's basketball for too many phone calls), and Syracuse still in play.
Bottom line: If previously pristine Penn State can get busted, so can your school. And your league. The old scandal geography no longer applies in college athletics.
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