When NCAA Penalties Are No Vacation

The association's rule enforcers increasingly compel colleges to forfeit their past victories and championships, much to their consternation.
June 19, 2008

Penalties go in and out of vogue in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's enforcement scheme. Before this winter, for instance, when teams at Lane College and the University of Central Oklahoma both were barred from appearing on television for two years, it had been nearly a dozen years since the Division I Committee on Infractions had last barred a college sports program from the tube. And it has been more than 20 years since the infractions panel suspended a team's season under the NCAA's so-called death penalty, one among numerous factors that has led to calls in some quarters for the association to toughen its penalties against rule breakers.

In that context, one type of penalty is clearly on the upswing: The NCAA panel is becoming increasingly likely to require colleges to vacate the victories -- and, when appropriate, personal or team records or league titles -- of teams that are found to have broken the rules. On Wednesday, for the fifth time already in 2008, the committee directed a Division I college (in this case, Southeast Missouri State University) to wipe out all record of past victories that were won, at least in part, through the use of ineligible athletes. (More details on Southeast Missouri State's case are below.) The panel required such a vacation of records six times in all of last year, three times in 2006, once in 2005, twice in 2004, and once each in 2003 and 2002, according to a search of the association's database of major rules infractions.

The increased use of the "vacation" penalty is no accident: The infractions panel's published report on the Southeast Missouri State case explains that the committee has made "substantial efforts to articulate and adhere to coherent, consistent standards for imposing a vacation penalty" over the last two years, and adopted a new policy a year ago that encourages its use whenever a set of "aggravating factors" occur, including academic fraud, serious intentional violations or a large number of violations, direct involvement of a coach or high-ranking administrator, or ineligible competition in a case that includes a finding of failure to monitor or a lack of institutional control.

The panel noted that several of those factors were in place in the Southeast Missouri State case, in which the women's basketball program violated a series of rules involving the provision of impermissible housing, transportation and meals for recruited athletes who had moved near the university before enrolling, and the men's basketball program gave improper benefits to athletes who had transferred to Southeast Missouri State. University officials were found to have lacked institutional control over the athletics program.

Most of the penalties that the NCAA infractions panel imposed on Southeast Missouri State -- scholarship and recruiting limitations in women's basketball, a $12,600 fine in men's basketball -- had initally been imposed by the university on itself.

The main exception was the requirement that the women's basketball squad vacate all of its wins in the 2004-5 and 2005-6 seasons, the latter of which included a conference title and a trip to the NCAA Division I women's basketball tournament. The vacation is no small task; per the NCAA's report, Southeast Missouri State must "vacate all wins in which ineligible student-athletes competed during the 2004-05 and 2005-06 women's basketball seasons. Further, the institution's records regarding women's basketball as well as the record of the former head coach will be reconfigured to reflect the vacated wins and so recorded in all publications in which women's basketball records for the affected seasons and post season are reported, including, but not limited to, media guides, recruiting material, electronic media and institutional and NCAA archives. Finally, any public reference to these vacated contests, including the institution's appearance in the 2006 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament, shall be removed from athletics department stationery, banners displayed in public areas and any other forum in which they may appear."

That mandate creates images of Southeast Missouri State officials ripping banners off the field house ceiling (banners seen in this slideshow on the university's Web site) and scouring campus bookstores snatching sweatshirts off the shelves that celebrate its conference championships.

In a statement to reporters Wednesday, the university's president, Kenneth W. Dobbins, generally took responsibility for the rule breaking but complained about the required stripping of victories. "We are concerned about the vacation of records and will be reviewing our options regarding that additional sanction over the next two weeks," Dobbins said.

In a phone interview late Wednesday, Southeast Missouri State's athletics director, Don Kaverman, said the university would consider appealing the penalty because he and other university officials believed the vacation of records was a "very strong" penalty that should be reserved for the most serious of NCAA violations, which he said Southeast Missouri State's did not seem to be. Kaverman said, too, that the stripping of victories undermined the value of the time and effort put into their sport by athletes in 2004-5 and 2005-6 who had nothing to do with the rule breaking. Punishing them is "unfair," he said.

Gene Marsh, a law professor at the University of Alabama who is a member and former chair of the Division I Committee on Infractions, would not be surprised that Southeast Missouri State officials reacted unhappily to the panel's penalties Tuesday. At a meeting Tuesday about the NCAA's penalty structure, sponsored by the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, Marsh said that of all the penalties the panel imposes, vacating wins produces "the largest amount of shouting and screaming" from college leaders and sports officials.

Marsh offered some insight into why the panel has increasingly embraced vacation of records as a penalty, despite the "pushback" it receives from campus administrators and fans. One longstanding criticism of the NCAA's enforcement process is that in trying to hold colleges responsible for wrongdoing that occurred, the association sometimes punishes athletes and coaches who played no role at all in the violations. Limitations on postseason play, for instance -- while they hurt institutional leaders who may deserve some culpability for breaches that occurred under their watch -- also harm athletes who were in high school at the time the lines were crossed.

"Crippling a program competitively in the future is in many cases the wrong way to go about it," Marsh said Tuesday. It's also not clear, he pointed out, whether a scholarship limitation or a ban on postseason play is necessarily going to hurt a college, since it might not have qualified for the playoffs anyway.

"If we impose penalties, I have to be Carmac the magnificent to know whether it's going to have an impact," Marsh said. "If I vacate, the impact is clear."


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