Someone Must Die (So College Sports May Live)

Shutting down a vaunted program will send a much-needed message: No cheaters allowed!

I was heartened by what I heard coming out of last week’s annual gathering of athletic directors and rising star assistant coaches known as the Villa 7 conference at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. In an age when college sports is dissolving into a backwash of lies, cheating and other sordid scandals, the men and women who hope to be head coaches say they want no part of it and would like the NCAA to issue stiffer sanctions to those programs caught afoul of the rules.

VCU coach Shaka Smart’s vivid quote in The New York Times has been widely viewed as the kind of bold stance college sports’ next generation of coaches seems willing to embrace in order to avoid falling into the same mud hole that is swallowing so many of their predecessors:

“To me, there’s a way to dissuade people from violating the rules,” he said. “It’s to penalize more. In some cultures, if you steal, they cut your hand off. They probably have a lot less theft.”

Allow me to Shaka-it-up even more: In order to truly begin cleansing college sports, the NCAA must revive the death penalty.

More correctly, the organization must be willing to use it again.

The death penalty is, of course, the NCAA’s ultimate sanction: shutting down a program for at least an entire season. No more games. Cue the crickets.

It was most famously levied against SMU’s football program in 1986 when, while already on probation for major recruiting violations, the Mustangs were found to be paying players through an elaborate subterfuge aided and abetted by athletic department officials and an arrogant booster. (That’s redundant, I know.)

The NCAA shuttered the program for the 1987 and 1988 seasons. It was the first use of the new “repeat violator” rule, which allowed the NCAA to shut down a sport for one or two seasons if an institution committed a second major violation in five years.

Not surprisingly, the move devastated the Mustangs program, which had been widely respected and among the most successful in the nation. Hence the catchier “death penalty” moniker was born. Only just now, after nearly a quarter century, is SMU football beginning to hold its head high again.

The deep and sobering impact the death penalty had on SMU has seemed to make the NCAA skittish about levying it ever since.

But it has done so — sort of.

In 2003, the NCAA squashed historically black Morehouse College’s soccer team and banned it until 2006 after discovering recruiting violations involving two Nigerian players and a “lack of institutional control.” (Allegedly, some school officials didn’t even know the school had a soccer team!) Today, soccer at Morehouse is an intramural sport. Division III MacMurray College lost its 2006 and 2007 seasons after the school was found to have provided scholarships to 10 international players. The violation? Division III schools are not allow to offer athletic scholarships.

So while the NCAA has swung its big stick, it hasn’t come close to the big fat piƱatas hanging in the middle the room — the ones plastered with names such as Auburn, UConn, North Carolina, Ohio State, USC, Tennessee and myriad other major universities with recent or future appointments with the NCAA.

And in the meantime, many of those schools have thrived on the field. Added Smart: “I think it’s pretty clear to a lot of people in this business that a lot of people who have broken the rules or bent the rules have prospered.”

No school feels any threat that its money-printing and money-burning machines — uh, programs, rather — might be deleted for something as trivial as, say, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to a street agent or family member for delivering a star player or “money handshake” or lying to NCAA investigators.

That’s why, in part, we are where we are — cringing at the daily headlines of impropriety run amok.

Until coaches, administrators and boosters do know their precious games can be eliminated, until they truly believe the NCAA will recast the hell of oblivion experienced by Mustangs football upon any institution that spits upon the rules, college sports will sink deeper and deeper into the mud hole.

And too, more and more coaches with stellar dossiers — icons such as Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and the once-celebrated (now exiled) former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl — will reek of the stench of impropriety. Or be out of a job.

It’s no mystery why a few “new” schools were widely cheered over the last year for more than their success on the football field or basketball court. Stanford (disclosure: it’s my alma mater), Butler and VCU were among those institutions lauded not only for winning but also for doing so “the right way.”

Translation: They didn’t cheat. At least not that we know.

Sure, we all root for our schools. And the more they win, the closer they get to a championship of any sort, the easier it is to cheer for them, no matter which “way” they got there.

But my tolerance is waning. Fast.

And, thankfully, the next generation of coaches doesn’t seem to walk in the same muddy trails. Nor are they afraid to say so.

This fall, Ohio State and Auburn will be among the institutions that open their seasons beneath the cloud of an NCAA investigation that could affect their records in recent seasons.

Now is the time for the NCAA to let them, and all schools, know that their misdeeds will cost them, dearly. Perhaps for illegally texting a recruit … off with their thumbs!

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3 thoughts on “Someone Must Die (So College Sports May Live)

  1. Alec says:

    Read your article on ESPN.com – good stuff. It is refreshing to see such proactive stances by upcoming coaches – let’s hope they aren’t limited to athletically smaller profile schools. Seeing the special on ESPN (re: SMU), one has to wonder about the timing of the “limitations” of the NCAA’s actions in respect to their burgeoning TV, ticket and overall revenues per conference. Coincidence, or conspiracy theory? Could be both, none or other, but I’d like to think coincidence (excuse my self imposed naivety).

    There has to be institutional change, where the RISK of losing those revenues is the deterrent to these illegal activities, as opposed to the revenues being the BENEFIT of “allowing” such activities – that’s what the penalties should be for. Finding the grounds to push for such a sweeping change of mentality has to be at the fan base level, and the fan base would demand such changes if there were no games – directly back to promoting hardline season long sanctions.

    Thanks for the article and thoughts!

  2. Troy Kirby says:

    I disagree only because it allows coaches and administrators get away with causing the problems. Instead of merely punishing the institution, have agreements the professional leagues which make a “repeat violator” coach or administrator suffer the same fate as the school if they are found to have caused NCAA “death penalty” violations.

    If the NBA followed this rule, several of the D-League violators (and Duayne Casey on an NBA bench) would have committed career suicide by committing big violations. By rendering those coaches and administrators “jobless” through college and the pros, it would prevent a lot of them from committing large violations and walking away. Jim Tressel would have reported the Ohio State ring selling scandal right away if he was aware he would never work in the NFL or college again if found guilty of such violations.

    If you’re going to cut off the hand of the school to have games, you might as well hold the coaches and administrators accountable who caused the violations in the first place.

  3. Kevin says:

    Just read your ESPN post on HBCUs… I went to Prairie View (and was editor of the school paper in the late 1980s) and know all too well the challenges we face in attracting talent, providing financial support, etc. We don’t have the money that the big schools have because we don’t have the big pocketed alumni helping us grow the endowment. And we dont have that because our graduates dont end up as CEO of Dell or Microsoft. Not sure how to change that, but glad you shined a light on the subject.

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