By Chris Mahr
Mark Emmert is fast approaching the end of his third year as the president of the NCAA. When he took the job in November 2010, he vowed to adopt a “tough on crime” approach to any team found guilty of malfeasance, to hand down penalties so rash for breaking the rules that it would set back guilty teams for years and scare off others from doing the same.
With one notable exception (which I’ll discuss later in this column), Emmert and his cohorts have failed miserably in this regard. Currently, they’re reminded of these shortcomings anytime they take a look at the first BCS standings of the 2013 season.
No. 3-ranked Oregon, fresh off a 46-7 run under departed head coach Chip Kelly, is 7-0 and averaging 56.7 PPG under successor Mark Helfrich. It was pretty clear that back in 2011, the Ducks paid Texas “street agent” Willie Lyles (above) $25,000 to steer players to Eugene (notably RB Lache Seastrunk).
By the time the NCAA penalized Oregon in June, they were essentially punishing ghosts. Kelly was handed an 18-month show-cause penalty, a meaningless slap on the wrist in light of the five-year contract he got to coach the Philadelphia Eagles five months prior. The Ducks, meanwhile were docked one scholarship and barred from subscribing to recruiting services for three seasons – another meaningless penalty.
Right behind the Ducks is No. 4 Ohio State, two-and-a-half years removed from Jim Tressel’s resignation as head coach after revelations of “Tattoo-gate” and other violations committed under his watch. It contributed greatly to a 6-7 campaign in 2011 under interim replacement Luke Fickell, but in retrospect that appears to have been a bump in the road more than anything else.
The Buckeyes haven’t lost a game since the arrival of Urban Meyer prior to the 2012 season. They look to be well-positioned to reel in Top 10 recruiting classes every year for the foreseeable future as well as dominate the Big Ten. In short, “Tattoo-gate” ended up being a dark day for the program but not the “End of Days” some people predicted.
Finally, at No. 7, we have the latest program to seemingly get caught redhanded yet get away largely unpunished: Miami (FL). It seemed pretty clear that booster and convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro plied Hurricanes players with all sorts of illicit benefits for several years. Alas, the NCAA botched their investigation so horribly that it was comparable, in some ways, to the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
Among the missteps the NCAA made were:
Having an investigator send Shapiro $4,500 for his cooperation;
Asking a judge to give Shapiro a lighter sentence on his Ponzi scheme conviction;
Paying Shapiro’s attorney to illegally obtain subpoenaed testimony to use for its own case.
Perhaps knowing that Miami would sue if they received a big penalty on the grounds of how the case against them was built illegally, the NCAA “penalized” the Hurricanes on Tuesday with nine reduced scholarships. In a season that could mark the program’s return to prominence (not to mention a BCS bowl), this might be their biggest victory yet.
Chalk this all up to one big overreaction on Emmert’s part to how he overreacted with the first big penalty he handed down during his tenure: the sanctions on Penn State football as punishment for the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
There was no doubting that the penalties for Sandusky’s heinous crimes (and Penn State’s inability/unwillingness to bring them to light) had to be harsh. But in instituting a four-year postseason bowl ban, fining the school $60 million and docking the Nittany Lions 40 scholarships from 2013 to 2017, Emmert went too far.
The last thing he wanted to do was duplicate that in future investigations into other programs. Yet in trying too hard to do so, he’s now not doing nearly enough. As a result, the NCAA’s status as a governing body of college sports has never felt more tenuous, their reputation as an upholder of the rules never more disrespected.
Just look at the Top 10, where there are three teams each of whom has been caught with their hands in the cookie jar at some point over the last three years. Three teams who pretty clearly broke the rules yet are contending for the national title just a short time later. Three teams who could persuade aspiring college football powers that perhaps breaking the rules is a risk worth taking.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.