Thursday, March 12, 2009

NCAA, Cheating and Expectations

Although this is a few days old, Corey Bunje Bower points to a story out of Florida where Florida State University is looking some pretty minor sanctions for what appears to be a wide spread cheating scandal involving 61 student athletes and multiple adults (by which I am guessing not other students, but instructors or other hired by the university). Bower seems on the one hand incredulous at the "sanctions" and partly sad at the almost laissez-faire attitude of the NCAA on the matter. Here are the sanctions:
-"Public reprimand and censure"

-The school is placed on probation (apparently not of the double-secret variety) for four years

-The teams involved lose scholarships -- but only a very small number (1-2 in football, fewer in other sports)

-The teams must vacate all victories in 2006-07

-The next time they do something, the NCAA is going to be really angry
Bower notes that it is hard to take seriously the stated ideals of upholding the importance of academics and punishing schools that violate cheating rules.

I agree, but what does NCAA stand for--National Collegiate Athletic Association. In recent years, particularly as some college sports are bringing in billions of dollars of revenue, i.e. football, men's basketball and now more than ever, women's sports like women's basketball and even soccer, athletics are starting to bring tens of millions of dollars in revenue each year. In fact, for many big time schools, the money brought in by football and basketball subsidize the athletics program for the entire school. So for that reason, the NCAA has understandably begun to focus on the athletics part a little too much.

To be fair to the NCAA, their emphasis is not all that surprising. To a certain extent the NCAA is not damaged all that much by a cheating scandal, while the individual university is greatly undermined, not only from its athletic program but also for its own acadmeic integrity. So while the NCAA is working to build the financial resources and rewards to be found in college athletics, it would be remiss to resort to too strong a sanction for something that doesn't damage really damage the NCAA. Also, while I don't want to imply that the NCAA is lenient on some programs, there has to be a realization by the NCAA that some programs generate more revenue. For example, there is a difference between the Duke basketball program's draw for TV revenue and say, University of Central Florida. Florida State football, while not performing all that great in the past few years, is headed by a legendary man, with a long history and on the verge of making history himself. Florida State still generates good revenue for the NCAA and too much damage or too harsh a sanction, i.e. killing off scholarships on a wide scale, would impact the ability of Florida State to generate ratings and revenue for the NCAA.

To me, the greater concern is not the NCAA's motivations, but the motivations of Florida State and the "adults" who were part of the cheating scandal. Student Athletes, particuarly in money sports and at well-known programs, have an incentive to keep their scholarship and will be tempted to take some shortcuts. The fact that school officials and "adults" at the school facilitated that effort is more troubling. A university is supposed to be a place where academic integrity is supposed to mean something. I have no problem with tutors (I was one myself), I have no problem with athletic departments making an effort to help student athletes (so long as the same resources are available to all students). I do have a problem with universities cater to student athletes, creating a sense of entitlement in the athletes and that is where the temptation to cheating arises and comes forth.

In reading the NCAA report, I think Florida State got off pretty light because it basically did not contest the allegations against it, figuring, rightly as it turns out, that accepting blame and prostrating themselves would limit the damage done.

The worst part about this incident is that it won't be the last. If the NCAA was really serious about sanctioning schools, the punishmnet wouldn't be loss of a few scholarships, it would be the loss of all scholarships in any sport implicated. Obviously you can't punish innocent student athletes, but let's say the sports affected were football, men's and women's track and field and women's swimming. The sanction would be those students involved lose their scholarship and if the academic infraction is serious enough under the university's student conduct code, be expelled. Students currently on a scholarship, but innocent of the cheating, would be allowed to complete their career or transfer to another institution with no impact on their eligibility (in some sports if you transfer schools, you can't compete for the new school for a year). Students who had signed a national letter of intent would be permitted to either vacate that letter with no penalty or would be permitted to accept a scholarship from the school. However, after those current letter of intent holders get their scholarships, that sports program can offer no new scholarships for a period of five years.

Yes, this would effectively kill many sports programs, for a decade or more, but the penalty has to be harsh, it has to be draconian and it has to meted out without consideration of the impact on the school's bottom line.

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