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NCAA Lacks Backbone in Bama Ruling

Jun 11, 2009 – 10:15 PM
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Kevin Blackistone

Kevin Blackistone %BloggerTitle%

In the annals of academic-athletic cheating scandals in college, particularly in the SEC, what Alabama got penalized for on Thursday pales in comparison. After all, Georgia basketball under Jim Harrick several years ago got busted for awarding credits to players who did not attend Harrick's son's class on basketball strategy, which included a test that asked how many halves are in a basketball game.

Upon further contrast, Alabama may even be more worthy of commendation than sanction. This transgression was of players, the biggest offenders being in football, abusing their athletic department's textbook acquisition policy.

Imagine that. Athletes were busted for spending money at a campus bookstore not so much for obtaining more school paraphernalia, mind you, but for procuring recommended textbooks, which is against NCAA rules, rather than just required texts. How about that? At least that is some evidence Alabama athletes are actually trying to pursue the first part of the most famous NCAA phrase: student-athlete.

For its rule breaking, Alabama football was placed on three years' probation ("Don't you guys mess up again, or else!") and forced to "vacate" a number of wins from 2005-07, the end of the Mike Shula era and the start of Nick Saban's.

I hate "vacate." It is the worst game the NCAA plays. It is something little children know as make-believe, as in making believe that Michigan's Fab Five basketball team never existed, which is what Michigan and the NCAA would have us believe after the NCAA accepted Michigan's self-imposed "vacating" of Fab Five accomplishments due to recruiting violations.

Vacate. It is one of the most-ridiculous and toothless penalties, if we can even call it that, which the NCAA employs. Unfortunately, it's about as much as we can expect -- save a postseason ban here or there and the cutting of a handful of scholarships -- from a billion-dollar organization that a friend of mine, University of Pennsylvania law professor Kenneth L. Shropshire, estimated in his 2004 book, The Business of Sports, spends only about 1.4 percent of its budget on rule enforcement, or less than it spends on public relations.

The NCAA isn't about to bite a hand that feeds it. Slap it, well, OK.

Alabama president Robert Witt said a slap was too much.

"A small number of athletes took advantage of the program to obtain textbooks for their friends, textbooks that had to be returned or paid for at the end of the semester," Witt said. "It's important to note that no coach or staff member was involved in the violation, no sport gained a competitive advantage and not one athlete pocketed [a dollar]."

But that's not the point.

Indeed, Alabama should have sustained worse damage, no matter the apparent trivial nature of this transgression or the fact that it uncovered it and turned itself in. As the NCAA stated in handing down its latest Alabama penalty: "Although the committee commends the institution for self-discovering, investigating and reporting the textbook violations, it remains troubled, nonetheless, by the scope of the violations in this instance and by the institution's recent history of infractions cases."

But the NCAA broke or bent its own rules to maintain the college sports' world order.

Alabama is a repeat, repeat violator of NCAA rules, which is the worst the NCAA can have. It's broken the rules and broken them again with impunity that measures up to SMU's disregard for the rules, though not its gall. For instance, the governor isn't implicated.

Alabama just came off five years' probation in 2007 that was handed down after the NCAA found what it termed 11 "major violations," among others. They included boosters well known to Alabama football paying recruits' families for their sons, which is really sad when you think about it. Isn't that parents who are pimping their progeny? At least one recruit was given use of a car in exchange for playing for the Crimson Tide. And those violations came when the athletic department was already under probation for basketball violations. As then-NCAA infractions committee chair Thomas Yeager declared, "They [Alabama] were absolutely staring down the barrel of the gun." The NCAA chickened out on pulling the trigger.

The NCAA says a repeat violator is a school that is busted for a major violation within five years of the starting date of a previous one. If Alabama is "vacating" wins as far back as 2005 and the NCAA considers this, as it does, a major violation, Alabama should be shut down for a spell. Period.

That's what the NCAA did, and rightfully so, to a rogue SMU football program in the late '80s. The severity of the penalty proved so severe, however, that it's unlikely to ever do so again. SMU went from a top 10 program to one that can barely compete. It doesn't turn out All-Americans and first-round draft picks anymore. It mostly produces college graduates. What a crazy idea!

By that measure, the NCAA's so-called death penalty -- for which Alabama has, and appears, again, qualified for - is the one that works. It is a deterrent if only the NCAA would dare drop the guillotine blade of a canceled season on recidivist programs in its membership rolls like big-time, bellwether schools like Alabama.
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