In what could be the first of a series of major actions in coming months against highly visible sports programs, the National Collegiate Athletic Association on Tuesday barred Ohio State University's football program from postseason competition next season for a set of high-profile major rules violations that involved tattoo parlors and no-show jobs.
The association's Division I Committee on Infractions came down hard on Ohio State's former coach for knowing about -- and failing to report -- improper payments to players, and concluded that university administrators had failed to monitor the football program. The panel's decision to bar the Buckeye football program from bowl games after the 2012 season appeared to catch Ohio State officials by surprise. They had expressed hope, if not outright confidence, that the NCAA would deem other penalties they had self-imposed (including scholarship limits and vacation of wins) to be sufficient, so that their new coach, Urban Meyer, would not be hamstrung in his first year on the job.
But the infractions panel's public report noted that Ohio State's situation involved several of the "aggravating" factors that, under NCAA rules, increase the risk of restrictions on teams' competition.
One was the finding that Ohio State had failed to monitor the activities of a booster who paid players for work they had not done; while "failure to monitor" is less serious than the NCAA's "lack of institutional control" violation, it is among the most serious findings against a college or university administration. Another was the fact that the university is considered a "repeat violator" under NCAA rules because it was punished for major rule breaking in men's basketball in 2006. A third, said Greg Sankey, associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and a member of the infractions panel, was that players who should have been ineligible gave Ohio State a competitive advantage that helped it win a bowl game after the 2010 season.
Given those factors, the panel wrote, the association could have gone even further and restricted postseason play for multiple years, as it did in a recent case involving the University of Southern California, for instance. "The committee chose not to impose such additional penalties after weighing the aggravating factors and the overall seriousness of the case in light of other recent major infractions cases where a multiple year postseason was imposed."
Ohio State officials were "surprised and disappointed" by the tough penalties, Gene Smith, the athletics director and associate vice president, said in a prepared statement. But the university has opted not to appeal the sanctions, Smith said, "because we need to move forward as an institution." He added: "Institutions of higher education must move to higher ground, and Ohio State embraces its leadership responsibilities and affirms its longstanding commitment to excellence in education and integrity in all it does."
The Ohio State case is one of several major cases of possible rule breaking (or other scandal) that have rocked sports powerhouses this year (followed by those at the University of Miami and Pennsylvania State University), a flurry that has prompted NCAA leaders to promise tougher enforcement of the association's rules. As a result, the outcome of the case was closely watched for signs of the NCAA's bigger stick -- both by those who want the NCAA to get tough, and those who think the association might be coming down too hard on Ohio State as a result.
During a conference call announcing the outcome of the Ohio State case, members of the infractions committee fended off an unusually aggressive set of questions about their findings, with some reporters seemingly looking for evidence that the panel had gone tougher on Ohio State because of a larger NCAA crackdown, and others wondering if the panel had eased up on Ohio State (compared, say, to USC).
Sankey, the vice chair of the infractions panel, made a persuasive case Tuesday that neither of those views was accurate, and that the panel had gone by the book in meting out its form of justice, based on the unusual contours of the Ohio State case.
The case burst into public view a year ago this week, when the university announced that it was suspending five players for several games at the start of this season because they had sold or exchanged their memorabilia for services at a Columbus tattoo parlor, in violation of NCAA rules against preferential treatment of athletes. The players were suspended but were allowed to play when Ohio State participated in a Bowl Championship Series game -- a fact that would come back to haunt the university.
An NCAA investigation into those allegations unfolded throughout the first half of 2011, leading to the resignation of Head Coach Jim Tressel (who knew about but on several occasions failed to report the violations) and self-imposed penalties in advance of the university's Aug. 12 appearance before the infractions committee. It was clear at that time that Ohio State (and Tressel personally) were headed for serious trouble, but it appeared that the university had dodged the sort of "institutional control" violations that would bring major penalties like postseason or television bans.
Weeks later, though, Ohio State suspended more members of the football team, after being alerted to allegations that a booster had paid players to appear at charity events and for jobs they did not perform.
It was those additional charges that appear to have cranked up the seriousness of the ramifications for Ohio State, leading to the finding of Ohio State's "failure to monitor." The booster in question had violated minor NCAA rules in 2006, and NCAA investigators accused university officials of failing to pay sufficient attention to him after that. "The institution conceded that it could have done more to monitor the representative by taking additional steps to determine whether he had interactions with student-athletes away from institutional facilities and, had it done so, the likelihood of these current violations occurring would have been reduced," the panel's report states.
In addition to the ban on postseason play, the NCAA also limited Ohio State to 82 scholarships (instead of the maximum 85) over each of the next three football seasons, ordered it to repay $338,811 (its share of revenues from the 2010 Sugar Bowl game), and mandated that it vacate all its football victories from 2010.
The panel also may have ensured that no other university hires Tressel, by going further than it usually does in restricting his activities should he be hired. The infractions committee commonly requires institutions that hire rule-breaking coaches to appear before it to explain why recruiting and other penalties should not carry to the new institution; but in this case, Tressel would be barred from any coaching duties in the first five games of the season and any playoff games in which his new team participated in his first season.