NCAA enforcement follies and the commentariat

Stewart Mandel recently wrote a piece on NCAA enforcement incoherence. It’s a good piece and gives a nice overview of the problems built right into the system’s framework, and how the NCAA arrived at the recent Ohio State ruling:

We've come a long way

[I]f you’re just a general college football fan, you have every reason to be puzzled, outraged and perhaps even despondent that the NCAA came down harder on Ohio State players for selling rings than it did on Heisman winner Cam Newton, whose father shopped Newton’s signature for $180,000.

Just nine days away from the New Year, this Ohio State mess marks the latest chapter in an unusually busy year for the NCAA’s enforcement division. From the USC/Reggie Bush sanctions to the North Carolina agent suspensions to Bruce Pearl, Tom Izzo and Newton, the headlines have been never-ending.

In the heavily layered NCAA bureaucracy, however, different personnel groups handle infractions cases (USC, Tennessee basketball), agent issues (Georgia, UNC), Basketball Focus Group (Izzo) and athlete eligibility reinstatement (Newton, Ohio State).

It’s no wonder the rules and the punishments seem so wildly inconsistent.

Yet, given the byzantine, inconsistent and incoherent nature of our actual criminal sentencing system — which actually puts people to death, in jail or doles out other, unique punishments — I’m not convinced that everything can be solved by blaming or even reducing “bureaucracy.” “Bureaucracy” has a very negative connotation, but it also is a simple description, meaning “government characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority” — a definition that describes any government or regulatory body or really any large organization, from the U.S. military to Apple Computer, Inc. or Google Inc. You can’t wish this stuff away; different penalties and judgments will come from different parts of the NCAA. Mandel’s column is good and it helpfully dispels the popular fan notion of NCAA as monolithic entity (with this perception awkwardly reinforced by the fact that the NFL (a far smaller organization than the NCAA) is ruled by fiat by them whims an imperial Commissioner). There are real problems with the NCAA’s rulemaking and enforcement system, but no one has yet systematically identified what they are and how they can be fixed.

Relatedly, Dan Wetzel’s recent paean to Cam Newton and his Dad as some kind of modern day Robin Hoods — “And yet we demand that Cecil Newton respect [the NCAA] and th[eir] rules?” — is just bizarre. This isn’t Correy Surrency disqualified from athletics on the basis of an overly narrow conception of what it means to be an amateur, but instead someone shopping their kid. Now, I am not saying that Cam should have been ruled ineligible. For purely selfish reasons — i.e. that I love watching him play in Malzahn’s offense — I am happy he’s still playing. And I also endorse anyone who, rightly in my view, criticizes systemic problems with NCAA enforcement, which, while it doesn’t have the effect of distorted criminal sentences that are alternatively too harsh or too lenient, can have seriously deleterious effects on individual student athletes, their families and their communities. But it’s another thing to make the leap Wetzel does from finding fault with the NCAA to absolving the Newtons and essentially encouraging future athletes to break the rules. Wetzel: “Yet Cecil Newton is the bad guy for asking for something close to what the market would bear? [Ed Note: The “market” in illegal payments for student-athletes?] Meanwhile all of the suits who run the game can sip cocktails and enjoy the Heisman ceremony? Why, because one dad did not respect the NCAA, its wobbly rule book and situational ethics? Why, for considering it all a sham and asking for a share?”

The answer of course is that Wetzel simply cannot be serious. Wetzel surely knows that it’s possible to critique one side without condoning the other. To use an extremely overdone analogy, in the past century, you could critique U.S. foreign policy without being an apologist for Stalin or Mao (again: this is just an analogy; Cecil Newton is neither Stalin nor Mao, but you get the idea). But Wetzel also prefers to kick up dirt rather than engage in serious argument. This is, of course, the generous reading of the article. If Wetzel is serious, well, I’m not sure what to say.

  • Wetzel has been an extreme dirt-kicker over the last few months, to the point where I have found myself defending the BCS and bowl system even though I’m not an amazing fan of either one. And I haven’t even read Death to the BCS yet, like the rest of the modern world…

  • Bill,

    I’m with you on the Death to the BCS thing. I read a bunch of reviews and listened to Wetzel on some podcasts, and had planned on buying it, but my initial interest was based on the idea that it would be a sober reflection on the BCS system and how, practically, we could make it better. Instead everyone essentially confirmed that it was a snow job. If I’m wrong about this and should read it, I’d love for someone to correct me.

  • Patrick

    I haven’t read his book, but I believe it calls for a 16 team playoff. That right there, to me, relegates anything that comes out of his mouth into “Mr Madison, what you have just said is one of the most insanely idiotic….” territory. I am definitely against a playoff, but I can understand an arguement for 4 teams. Anything more than that extremely devalues the regular season and turns college football into the NFL.

  • John

    I’ve not been a big Wetzel supporter this year and don’t agree with him here, but the simple explanation for the NCAA’s punishments can be explained with the following comparison.

    Money received by Cam Newton: $0
    Money received by Pryor et al.: $1,000’s and $1,000’s

  • Jim


    The same here I have read some of his articles and heard some of his interviews and the guy comes off as nothing more than a high school kid running for class president by promising ice cream for every one and home work optional. I have no read his book but if I see it at a bookstore I might skim it just to see if actually attempts to answer any of the question that so far in his articles and interviews he all but says and in some cases does say everything will just work itself out. For example he just assumes the money is going to be greater while ignoring a playoff will have to take place either during December which has two of the lowest rated weeks of TV or directly against the NFL playoffs. He has ignored that the NCAA or whoever ends up owning the commerical rights is going to take a large rent from a TV contract. He ignores that it is not the total bowl payouts that matter but the payouts to the Big 10 that matter as why would they agree to a system where they make less money and they currently make about 50 million a year from post season play. He ignores that a playoff will have to make up for any lessoning of the value of the regular season packages. So far on all these issues all I hear from him is it will work because it needs to work to prove him right.

  • I never read this article.It is really interesting article to read.