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Out of bounds: College football's season of scandals

In the past year, major college football programs have been penalized, but will that help?

POSTED: July 9, 2011 10:12 p.m.
Graphics by Colin Dunlop; Photo Illustration by Tom Reed | The Times/

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It would be hard to rival the scandals that have marred college football in the last 12 months.

North Carolina had 14 players suspended for its 2010 season opener for a wide range of violations, Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was benched for two games for accepting improper benefits from an agent, and Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green was slapped with a four-game suspension for selling a jersey to an agent.

And that was just the first week of the season.

Before the season was done, wrong doing was revealed at all levels of the college game. Here’s a quick rewind to the highlights: One parent was looking to sell his kid to the highest bidder, a Heisman trophy was returned by a player ruled ineligible, and one of the sports biggest traditional powers was rocked with a scandal so big that its coach stepped down before the NCAA could levy any penalty against the school. Not to be left out, the Fiesta Bowl also had its head man, John Junker, step down for unethical conduct, including having employees funnel money to political candidates.

Violations big and small in college football are as old as the game itself. Players have long been suspected of receiving money from overzealous boosters. Grade changing and improper academic assistance are also nothing new.

All of which begs the bigger question: Is college football out of control?

University of Central Florida sports business professor Richard Lapchick says the answer is no. He says the most problematic instances arise at the bigger institutions, which also draw the most media coverage. He says the biggest problem for fans to digest is when players, coaches and parents lie about an infraction after they have already been exposed. It’s not the crime that causes all the outrage, he says, it’s the cover-up.

“I think the game of college football faces some serious issues, but the game isn’t out of control,” said University of Nebraska representative Josephine Potuto, who served on the NCAA’s Committee of Infractions for nine years recently. The two biggest scandals that swooped down on college football this season are easy to identify. First, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton was alleged in November to have been shopped by his father, Cecil Newton, to the highest bidder.

The NCAA later established that Cecil Newton in fact did try to sell his son for $180,000 to Mississippi State University, but Cam Newton had no knowledge of his father’s backroom negotiations. As a result, Newton was lead the Tigers on to their national title and pick up the Heisman Trophy along the way.

Then fast forward to December, Ohio State suspended five players, including starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor for the first five games of the 2012 season, leaving them eligible to play in the Sugar Bowl against Arkansas. The players were found to have sold memorabilia to tattoo parlor owner Edward Rife for cash and discounts on tattoos. The cardinal sin of the case was Tressel knowing about the allegations, but keeping it from the school’s compliance department.

As the storm cloud surrounding Ohio State continued to grow and heat intensified around the Buckeyes coach, he eventually resigned on May 30. The NCAA still hasn’t made a ruling in this case, but it is widely believed the school will face serious sanctions, even though Tressel is no longer in the picture.

Already, the NCAA is starting to come down on schools that got in trouble this season. North Carolina, for example, is facing nine major violations that were outlined by the NCAA last month.

“I’m encouraged by the moves of the NCAA and they’re obviously taking these cases very seriously,” said Illinois State assistant sports business professor Chad McEvoy.

The precedent has already been set that the NCAA means business. Its harshest punishment against a football program came down in 1987 against Southern Methodist University’s team was handed the death penalty after a long string of rule-breaking that included paying players. The Mustangs didn’t field a team in 1987 and 1988 and didn’t make a bowl game again until 2009.

From Potuto’s experience, she doesn’t believe Ohio State’s transgressions are on the same level as those of SMU in the 1980s.

Even if they were, the punishment that crippled one of the most successful programs of the 1980s seem unlikely to be levied again.

“The Committee of Infractions has never said it wouldn’t impose the death penalty again,” Potuto said. “It’s just that no case in the 25 years since has come close to what happened at SMU.”

To stay on the good side of the NCAA’s governing body, schools have beefed up their compliance departments to stay proactive in the face of possible wrong doing. Not all violations are big. At the University of Georgia, coach Mark Richt reported two secondary violations for his cell phone mistakenly sending a text message to a prospect’s parent — a violation until one day after a player signs a National Letter of Intent.

There’s no cookie-cutter way of conducting an investigation. It varies from case to case, but involves informing athletic department personnel, conducting interviews and writing reports and proper documentation of the incident.

University of Georgia assistant athletic director of compliance Eric Baumgartner doesn’t try to make a judgment whether an incident is major or minor upon first glance. His job is to stay in front of an issue before it becomes a major violation. Richt also reported a secondary violation on himself in August when he thought he was returning a call to the mother of East Hall’s Sterling Bailey, a Georgia signee, but instead called C.J. Curry, a rising senior Georgia is currently recruiting.

“It’s all a matter of acting appropriately, swiftly and in a just matter,” Baumgartner said. “Something minor could lead to something major if we don’t.”

According to the NCAA, the difference between secondary and major violations is pretty stark. Major violations result in a considerable recruiting or competitive advantage and can lead to severe penalties against the schools or people involved.

Secondary violations are less severe, more frequent and are typically not made public.

The organization’s stance is that all infractions will be taken seriously.

“No matter what the issue is, we want to provide an even playing field,” NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn said.

So what happens after a school has been slapped with violations and an extended probation? Does a reduction in scholarships or loss of bowl privileges have a long-term negative impact?

McEvoy, the Illinois State professor, says no. In fact, some programs come back stronger after a probationary period. His research study in 2007 looked at 35 teams facing probation over a 15-year period, ending in 2002, and saw as a whole, their winning percentage went up slightly.

His most vivid example was the University of Miami which went on probation for three years and lost 31 scholarships starting in 1996, but came back with a national title in 2001.

He says through his research that teams adjust to scholarship losses with roster management. When they get back to the full allotment of scholarships, it’s almost seen as a bonus.

“It struck me as odd and a little disturbing that a school could use a penalty to their advantage,” McEvoy said.

The 10 schools hit with the biggest penalties only saw a slight drop in winning percentage — .634 to .614 — during that time frame.

2010 was far from the first season marred by controversy and it won’t be the last. But these days, in the time of the expanding coverage via Internet and 24-hour news channels, college football scandals often overlap, leaving fans often confused over which names and details pertain to which case. Tattoo parlors, a pay-for-play scheme, and Twitter-happy players who blew the whistle on themselves dominated the year’s headline headlines and helped define a season of scandals.



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