When it comes to college athletics, it sure seems cheating pays

At Big 12 media days last July, commissioner Bob Bowlsby sent a ripple through college sports by declaring that “cheating pays.” He said the NCAA’s enforcement model was “broken” and that the risk of significant punishment didn’t outweigh the reward of winning.

“They’re in a battle with a BB gun in their hand,” Bowlsby said. “They’re fighting howitzers."

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby stirred the pot with his July comments declaring that 'cheating pays.' (AP)
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby stirred the pot with his July comments declaring that 'cheating pays.' (AP)

This set off a spasm of reaction and rebuttal, including NCAA president Mark Emmert and director of enforcement Jon Duncan defending the association’s ability to police itself.

As we head into March Madness, you can expect the usual round of assessments of the college sports landscape and its ethical land mines. There will be cheerleaders who declare all is well, and there will be those who sail in after not paying attention at all to declare the place a disaster area. The truth is somewhere in the middle – but what’s transpired since Bowlsby’s startling July declaration gives credence to what he said. A Top 10 List of recent developments:

Oregon and Ohio State played for the college football national championship. The Ducks were still on probation, dating to a 2013 NCAA ruling. The Buckeyes came off probation 24 days before the championship game, dating to a 2011 NCAA ruling.

Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in January, with nearly two years remaining on the NCAA show-cause penalty he received as part of that 2011 Committee on Infractions ruling. In May 2014, Tressel was named president of Youngstown State University.

An 18-month show-cause penalty against former Oregon coach Chip Kelly expired in December, and fans of several colleges clamored for schools to hire him. Kelly instead opted to keep his $6.5 million-a-year job as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. His assistant chief of staff is Josh Gibson, who received a one-year show-cause penalty from the NCAA as part of the 2013 ruling against Oregon.

A report commissioned by North Carolina revealed, in devastating detail, systemic academic fraud within the school and conservatively estimated that more than 1,500 athletes were part of the scam over a period of 18 years. The NCAA re-opened its own investigation, which previously had led to no allegations. Basketball coach Roy Williams is in the Hall of Fame. Former football coach Butch Davis, fired in 2011 as part of the fall-out from the scandal, is an ESPN analyst.

Syracuse self-imposed a postseason ban on Jim Boeheim's basketball team. (USAT)
Syracuse self-imposed a postseason ban on Jim Boeheim's basketball team. (USAT)

Syracuse went before the NCAA Committee on Infractions at the end of October to answer charges of numerous violations within the basketball program over many years. A COI ruling is expected soon, though likely not this week. Earlier this month, the school self-imposed a pre-emptive postseason ban for this year, prohibiting the Orange from playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and anything thereafter – and an NCAA tourney bid would have been likely. It is the second postseason ban during the tenure of coach Jim Boeheim, who also is in the Hall of Fame. And you won’t find anybody who thinks the school is going to fire Boeheim when all is said and done.

SMU is readying a response to the NCAA after receiving a notice of allegations of violations within its basketball program. An assistant coach was placed on leave in December. The Mustangs are 22-5 this season, 13-2 and tied for first in the American Athletic Conference – and unless the school follows Syracuse’s lead and self-imposes a postseason ban, SMU will be free to play in the NCAA tournament. (The case is months away from resolution.) If SMU is found to have committed violations, it would make coach Larry Brown three-for-three in having a college program he led penalized by the NCAA (UCLA and Kansas are the previous two). Brown is in the Hall of Fame.

Kelvin Sampson coached his first basketball game at Houston and Bruce Pearl coached his first game at Auburn, following the expiration of show-cause penalties against both men. During part of the time when the penalties were in effect, Sampson was an assistant in the NBA and Pearl was an ESPN analyst. While Sampson was president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches in 2003-04, he presided over an ethics summit that aimed at improving the image and ethics of coaches. Two years later, the NABC issued a public reprimand of its former president for impermissible recruiting contacts while coaching at Oklahoma – violations he would go on to repeat at Indiana, leading to the show-cause penalty.

In mid-December, Oliver Luck left his job as athletic director at West Virginia to join the NCAA as its executive vice president of regulatory affairs. Essentially, he’s the No. 2 man in the NCAA. Two months later, the athletic department Luck left was put on two years’ probation by the NCAA for violations committed in 14 sports. Most of them are minor, dealing with impermissible phone calls because the school didn’t adequately use the phone-monitoring software it had. But probation and recruiting restrictions were among the penalties applied.

Earlier this month, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari was named a finalist for the Hall of Fame. Two of his five Final Four appearances have been vacated due to NCAA violations within the programs he led.

Connecticut’s three-year NCAA probation for men’s basketball violations ended earlier this week. Last year, while still on probation, the Huskies won the national title. The previous year, the school was ineligible for postseason play due to a deficient Academic Progress Rate. Jim Calhoun, who was the coach during both NCAA violations and the academic failings, is in the Hall of Fame.

Two of John Calipari's five Final Four appearances have been vacated due to NCAA violations. (AP)
Two of John Calipari's five Final Four appearances have been vacated due to NCAA violations. (AP)

Again, that’s the list since last July.

You can argue that cheating doesn’t expressly pay – that there have been consequences for almost all the principles mentioned above. But to date, none of the consequences has ended careers, killed programs or destroyed reputations. Schools and individuals have gone on – in several cases to bigger and better things.

At the very least, most coaches and administrators realize that you have to break some compliance eggs if you’re going to work in the heat of the big-time college sports kitchen. So you take a few risks. Where the NCAA seemingly has failed is in Emmert’s oft-stated goal of tilting the risk-reward equation to the point that it discourages rule breaking.

Some suggestions that would increase the risk: season-long suspensions for coaches – if the schools want to keep them, it will come at a cost; bigger financial penalties, provided the collateral damage doesn’t come to non-revenue sports that are not involved in any rule-breaking; and a reintroduction of the television ban, with an accompanying loss of TV revenue. That would raise holy hell with broadcast partners who really don’t care at all who cheats (just look at who they hire as analysts), but it would hit schools where it hurts. Try recruiting players when you tell them they won’t be on TV for a year, in an era when everyone is on TV.

As it stands now, there is enough reward to outweigh the risk. First, they have to catch you. Then they have to apply a punishment that is a true deterrent. The NCAA BB gun isn’t winning many firefights at the moment.

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