The National Collegiate Athletic Association punished nearly half of all big-time college sports programs for major violations of its rules in the last decade, an Inside Higher Ed analysis shows.
The review finds that 53 of the 120 universities in the NCAA’s top competitive level, the Football Bowl Subdivision, were found by the NCAA's Division I Committee on Infractions to have committed major rules violations from 2001 to 2010. That number appears to have held largely constant from the previous two decades, but the 2000s show that the number of colleges that committed serious violations of the association’s academic rules nearly doubled, to 15 from 8 in the 1990s.
Exactly what these results say about the state of NCAA rule-breaking and enforcement is to some extent in the eye of the beholder. To many critics of big-time college sports, the fact that so many major programs committed what the association deems major violations of its rules is likely to undermine the argument -- historically heard from some sports officials -- that rule-breaking is relegated to “a few bad apples” (an argument likely to resonate with those paying attention to the debate in Washington over for-profit colleges).
To others, though, the large number of colleges ensnared in the NCAA’s infractions process is evidence that the association has an impossibly complex (and, some would argue, arcane) set of rules that virtually no program can follow to a tee. Some argue that college and university sports officials -- with bigger compliance staffs and more cooperation with NCAA investigators -- are doing a much better job ferreting out (and self-reporting) wrongdoing in their own programs.
Still others point out that, especially compared to some of the high-profile pay-for-play and other scandals of the 1980s and 1990s, many of the cases in the last decade involve relatively minor violations, such as excessive phone calls to recruits.
Yet even some experts who take a more upbeat view of the infractions statistics admit to concern about the increase in academically related violations, which they attribute, at least in part, to changes in NCAA eligibility rules that lowered the minimum academic requirements for freshmen and imposed penalties on teams and colleges whose athletes do not make consistent progress toward a degree. (See related Views article  here.)
“We’re admitting more people who really don't belong there, and spending millions on academic support to keep them there,” said Gene A. Marsh, a retired University of Alabama law professor who headed the Division I Committee on Infractions from 2004 to 2006. And while most sports officials remain “focused on educational progress for students for their own sake,” the potential penalties for colleges whose athletes don’t succeed academically “means you’re going to get more people getting cute, more professors who lose their will and their ethics.”
Better Than the 1980s?
By most accounts, the 1980s represented the height of NCAA rule-breaking. That was the decade in which the television money connected to big-time college sports began to explode (thanks in no small measure to a Supreme Court decision that ended the NCAA’s stranglehold on football TV contracts). It also included the NCAA’s first-ever (and to this date only) imposition of its famed “death penalty,” on the Southern Methodist University football program, after a scandal in which Texas’ governor was implicated in paying players to enroll there. A 1990 survey by this reporter found that 57 of the 106 institutions in what was known then as Division I-A had been punished by the association for rule-breaking during the 1980s.
How much has changed since then? Have tougher enforcement and the NCAA's efforts to encourage colleges to identify and report their own violations diminished the extent of rule-breaking? Are major violations common, or are such breaches exceptional, as college sports officials often assert?
A review of the NCAA's own database of major violations  finds that over the previous 10 years, 53 of the 120 institutions that now compete in the Football Bowl Subdivision broke major NCAA rules. That is one fewer than the 54 that committed major violations in the 1990s, according to the NCAA database, although the total number of cases in the 2000s -- 65 -- was actually one higher than in the 1990s.
That's because 11 institutions had two major infractions cases during the decade: Ball State University, California State University at Fresno, Florida International University, Texas Christian University, and the Universities of Alabama, Arkansas at Fayetteville, Colorado at Boulder, Michigan, Oklahoma, Southern California, and Washington.
While critics often complain that the NCAA picks on less-prominent sports programs and goes easy on the highest-profile institutions, the results from the 2000s don't necessarily back that up. More universities in the Big Ten Conference (eight) were punished for major violations than in any other league, followed by seven in the Big 12 and Southeastern Conferences and six in the Pacific-10 Conferences, all of which are among the six leagues in the Bowl Championship Series that are typically seen as college sports' biggest players.
The other two major conferences -- the Atlantic Coast and Big East Conferences -- had four and two members punished, respectively.
Among other trends, the NCAA found a "lack of institutional control" at 14 universities from 2001-2010, down sharply from 31 from 1991-2000. "Lack of institutional control" is among the more serious NCAA rules violations, because it suggests that the college in question did not have adequate policies and practices in place to prevent violations and did not sufficiently oversee rules compliance.
The 2000s, however, saw a near-quadrupling -- to 23, from six in the 1990s -- of the number of colleges found guilty of "failure to monitor," suggesting that more institutions had proper policies and procedures in place but used them insufficiently.
The infractions committee used what have historically been its most serious penalties -- bans on appearing on television and on appearing in the postseason -- much less frequently in the last decade than in the 1990s. Just six Football Bowl Subdivision programs had teams barred from the playoffs in their sports during the 2000s, down from 31 in the 1990s. And no FBS teams were barred from appearing on television from 2001-2010, while three were from 1991-2000.
Michael L. Buckner is one of a small but growing number of lawyers whose practices revolve largely around helping colleges investigate and minimize the damage from NCAA rule-breaking. He says that the significant uptick in both institutional and NCAA officials involved in preventing and ferreting out potential violations has helped to sustain the number of violations uncovered -- and perhaps decreased the severity of the penalties imposed by the NCAA, which tends to reward colleges when they uncover wrongdoing themselves.
"When you have a large compliance staff, when they're doing what they're supposed to be doing in terms of NCAA guidelines, you're going to have more possible rules violations," he says. "And that's especially true when you consider how many more rules you have to comply with," as the NCAA tends to expand its rulebook every year.
Josephine R. Potuto, the Richard H. Larson Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and, like Marsh, a former infractions committee chair, says that "while you would certainly like the number [of major violations] to be much lower," she perceives a qualitative difference in the types of violations that are being uncovered, especially compared to the pay-for-play scandals of the 1980s.
"A number of cases, when I served [on the infractions panel], involving playing and practice seasons or excessive telephone calls," she says. "Certainly I wouldn't be here to defend those sorts of violations by any means -- schools are obliged to follow all the rules, and a major violation is a major violation. But I think they are different in kind from academic fraud, from amateurism violations, from real recruiting violations" of the sort that were more common two decades ago, Potuto says.
Marsh agrees that it "may be that there are more people out walking sentry duty," and that "you could have fewer violations and more people out there catching fish." He also concurs with Potuto that much of the rule-breaking in the last decade has involved "some pretty humdrum stuff" that has been deemed major because of the number of violations, more than because of their seriousness, like excessive text messages or phone calls sent to athletes.
But he says he is struck by -- and concerned about -- the significant number of cases of academic fraud. Fifteen of the 64 major cases involving Football Bowl Subdivision universities from 2001-10 pertained to academic fraud or other academic violations involving enrolled athletes, up from 8 in 1991-2010.
Marsh thinks that increase can be attributed, in part, to the NCAA's decision early in the decade to eliminate the minimum cutoff score athletes needed to be eligible to play as freshmen. When combined with the Academic Progress Rate system the association instituted in 2003 -- which imposes potentially serious penalties on teams whose athletes don't stay on track toward graduation -- those changes have been perceived as pushing more athletes into less academically demanding majors and could lead officials to "focus on eligibility... What can we do to keep this kid eligible for one more fall semester?"
Buckner, the lawyer, agrees that the NCAA's academic rules may be leading to more rule-breaking, but attributes the problem to individuals rather than to institutional malfeasance. Potuto agrees, to a point: "If you're talking about the kind of rule-breaking where somebody on the staff of a university would be complicit in helping a student-athlete plagiarize to stay eligible, or have somebody take a test to stay eligible, that's an individual situation, not a systemic problem," she says.
"But if you're talking about getting sucked in to doing more for student-athletes than sound academic principles would provide, then we might be seeing something systemic there," she says. "There are incentives in athletics to cheat that really change the nature of what's going on. If you have those sorts of incentives, people who are going to do anything to succeed are going to do things that you don't like."
Football Bowl Subdivision Universities Punished for Major Violations, 2001-2010
|Arizona State U.||Pacific-10||2005||Impermissible benefits and financial aid; unethical conduct; lack of institutional control|
|Auburn University||Southeastern||2004||Recruiting violations|
|Ball State University||Mid-American||2010||Exceeding practice hour limitations; involuntary summer activities; impermissible tryout and inducements; unethical conduct|
|Ball State University||Mid-American||2007||Excessive financial aid and grants-in-aid; impermissible extra benefits; exceeding practice hour limitations; lack of institutional control|
|Baylor University||Big 12||2005||Impermissible benefits, inducements and financial aid to prospective athletes; impermissible contact and tryout; unethical conduct for 4 former coaches; academic fraud; lack of institutional control|
|Brigham Young University||Mountain West||2008||Impermissible transportation, housing, meals, loans and employment; extra benefits; failure to monitor|
|California State University, Fresno||Western Athletic||2006||457 impermissible phone contacts with prospective athletes by former coaches|
|California State University, Fresno||Western Athletic||2003||Improper certification of eligibility; unethical conduct; academic fraud; impermissible benefits and financial aid; lack of institutional control|
|Florida International University||Sun Belt||2008||Ineligible participation; financial aid violations; lack of institutional control|
|Florida International University||Sun Belt||2005||Impermissible skill instruction; impermissible out-of-season athletically related activities, unethical conduct and a failure to monitor|
|Florida State University||Atlantic Coast||2009||Academic fraud, involving improper assistance by former academic support employees resulting to numerous athletes in multiple sports. Provision of impermissible benefits and a failure to monitor|
|Georgia Institute of Technology||Atlantic Coast||2005||Ineligible participation by 17 athletes in four sports over six years; improper certification by registrar and others of athletes as eligible for competition. Ineligible participation and lack of institutional control|
|Indiana University at Bloomington||Big 10||2008||Failure to adhere to penalties set forth in a previous infractions report, involving prohibited telephone calls|
|Marshall University||Conference USA||2001||Impermissible employment of academic nonqualifiers at rates four times the prevailing wage, academic fraud, and lack of institutional control|
|Middle Tennessee State University||Sun Belt||2008||Violations in the women's volleyball program involving ineligible participation by a women's volleyball student-athelte and failure to monitor by the institution and the former head women's volleyball coach.|
|Mississippi State University||Southeastern||2004||Violations of NCAA legislation regarding recruiting (improper recruiting contacts and inducements) and unethical conduct.|
|New Mexico State University||Western Athletic||2001||Impermissible contract for future employment; unethical conduct; academic fraud; recruiting inducements; violations of two-year college transfer regulations; violation of financial aid eligibility regulations; impermissible recruiter; recruiting inducements; violation of athlete/coach relationship; lack of fairness, openness and honesty; impermissible tryout.|
|Northern Illinois U.||Mid-American Conference||2006||Infractions case centering primarily on the provision of impermissible extra benefits to a women's basketball student-athlete.|
|Ohio State University||Big 10||2006||Violations of NCAA legislation in the men's basketball program involving recruiting, extra benefits, academic fraud, unethical conduct and failure to monitor.|
|Purdue University||Big 10||2007||Unethical conduct; academic fraud and the provision of false and misleading information; impermissible telephone calls.|
|Rutgers University||Big East||2003||Improper certification for financial aid, practice and competition,; ineligible competition resulting from failure to fulfill credit requirements; ineligible competition resulting from failure to earn minimum percentage of credits for satisfactory progress during academic year; ineligible competition resulting from errors in designation of degree program; improper certification of transfer student-athletes; exceeding grant-in-aid limits (football) and a lack of institutional control.|
|San Diego State University||Mountain West||2003||Impermissible mandatory out-of-season workouts; improper use of student-athletes in a commercial production; impermissible countable athletically related activity; impermissible extra benefits (provision of apparel items) and a failure to monitor the football program.|
|State University of New York at Buffalo||Mid-American||2001||The case primarily concerned violations of NCAA Bylaws governing preseason practice, tryouts, coaching staff restrictions, impermissible scouting of opponents, extra benefits, unethical conduct and a lack of monitoring.|
|Temple University||Mid-American||2007||Ineligible participation and impermissible travel expenses; impermissible financial aid; unethical conduct; ineligible participation and failure to monitor. Also secondary violations.|
|Texas Christian University||Mountain West||2008||Violations of NCAA legislation in the men's tennis program involving impermissible phone contacts and failure to monitor.|
|Texas Christian University||Mountain West||2005||The violations were in the men's and women's track program and involved the provision of impermissible inducements and extra benefits to 22 prospective and enrolled student-athletes over a seven-year period. The case also involved academic fraud and unethical conduct.|
|University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa||Southeastern||2009||Impermissible benefits obtained by student-athletes through misuse of the institution's textbook distribution program.|
|University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa||Southeastern||2002||Athletics representatives actively engaged in violations of recruiting and extra-benefit legislation with prospective student-athletes and provided impermissible recruiting inducements through high-school coaches. Numerous secondary violations.|
|University of Arizona||Pacific-10||2010||Violations of impermissible inducements and tryouts, impermissible recruiting activities, failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance and failure to monitor.|
|University of Arkansas-Fayetteville||Southeastern||2007||Recruiting violations regarding impermissible transportation; impermissible housing; impermissible assistance with the receipt of academic course material; impermissible tutoring, transportation and academic assistance; impermissible assistance associated with academic testing; unethical conduct and failure to monitor.|
|University of Arkansas-Fayetteville||Southeastern||2003||Violations included: extra benefits, recruiting, financial aid, employment, supplemental provision and a failure to monitor arising out of impermissible employment of numerous football and men's basketball student-athletes.|
|University of California-Berkeley||Pacific-10||2002||Unethical conduct; academic fraud; academic ineligibility; failure to withhold ineligible student-athletes from competition; impermissible extra benefits; recruiting inducements and lack of institutional control.|
|University of Central Florida||Conference USA||2010||Violations involving non-scholarship student-athletes being charged the wrong amount for training table meals.|
|University of Colorado-Boulder||Big 12||2007||Violations involving non-scholarship student-athletes being charged the wrong amount for training table meals.|
|University of Colorado-Boulder||Big 12||2002||Provision of clothing items to recruits during official paid visits, contacts with booster, publicity involving a prospective athlete, excessive reimbursement of travel expenses for recruits and improprieties involving recruiting expenses. Failure to monitor recruiting practices in football.|
|University of Georgia||Southeastern||2004||Violations of NCAA legislation governing recruiting inducements, extra benefits, student-athlete competition while ineligible, academic fraud and tow additional instances of unethical conduct committed by a former assistant men's basketball coach.|
|University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana||Big 10||2005||Violations in the football program regarding the provision of impermissible inducements and benefits by a representative of the institution's athletics interest.|
|University of Iowa||Big 10||2006||This case was resolved using the summary disposition process. The violations centered on fraud in the admissions process which resulted in ineligible competition by three foreign men's swimming student-athletes.|
|University of Kansas||Big 12||2006||Impermissible inducements and benefits involving basketball boosters; academic fraud involving two former graduate assistant football coaches and impermissible inducements to prospective two-year college transfers.|
|University of Kentucky||Southeastern||2002||Recruiting inducements for prospective athletes and high school coaches; impermissible tryout; unethical conduct; academic fraud; falsification of recruiting records; institutional control of recruiting funds; failure to control salary of employee; failure in fiscal control of outside agency; failure to monitor and a lack of institutional control.|
|University of Louisiana at Lafayette||Sun Belt||2007||Findings of violations concerning ineligible participation; voluntary summer workout violations; and failure to monitor.|
|University of Louisiana at Monroe||Sun Belt||2004||Violations of NCAA recruiting legislation, with attendant violations of unethical conduct on the part of the former head women's tennis coach and a women's tennis student-athlete.|
|University of Maryland, College Park||Atlantic Coast||2003||Violations of recruiting inducements, unethical conduct and one secondary violation.|
|University of Memphis||Conference USA||2009||Impermissible recruiting inducement and extra benefits; unethical conduct by former women's golf coach. In men's basketball, impermissible extra benefits to recruited athlete; ineligible competition; failure to monitor.|
|University of Memphis||Conference USA||2005||Excessive countable athletically related activities; practice and competition by an ineligible athlete and athletics aid for an ineligible athlete; unethical conduct and a failure to monitor.|
|University of Miami||Atlantic Coast||2003||Impermissible tryouts; impermissible activities associated with sports club; impermissible financial aid; violation of honesty standards; impermissible recruiting contacts with boosters; failure to monitor.|
|University of Michigan||Big 10||2010||Exceeding coaching staff limitations, playing and practice season violations, unethical conduct and failure to monitor|
|University of Michigan||Big 10||2003||The violations involved the men's basketball program and centered on the provision of more than $600,000 in cash and other benefits to at least four former men's basketball student-athletes by a representative of the university's athletics interest. The athletics representative's funds were derived from an illegal gambling enterprise he operated for many years at Detroit automobile assembly plants, where he was employed.|
|University of Minnesota-Twin Cities||Big 10||2002||The former head women's basketball coach committed numerous recruiting violations involving prospective student-athletes by providing extra benefits, free or reduced lodging, impermissible recruiting inducements and violations of playing and practice season legislation. The former head women's basketball coach was found for unethical conduct and the institution was found for lack of institutional control.|
|University of Missouri-Columbia||Big 12||2004||Recruiting violations, honesty standards, impermissible telephone contacts, impermissible extra benefits and failure to monitor NCAA rules compliance.|
|University of Nebraska-Lincoln||Big 12||2002||Impermissible financial aid, extra benefits, recruiting inducements, tryouts and housing arrangements for prospective athletes; improper telephone contacts with prospective athletes; unethical conduct and failure to monitor.|
|University of Nevada-Reno||Western Athletic||2010||Extra benefits provided in the form of airline ticket; impermissible provision of cash; providing alcoholic beverages; unethical conduct finding by former head coach for providing false and misleading information; failure to cooperate and promote an atmosphere of compliance.|
|University of New Mexico||Mountain West||2008||Impermissible inducements, extra benefits and unethical conduct.|
|University of Oklahoma||Big 12||2007||Impermissible extra benefits; payment for work not performed; failure to monitor.|
|University of Oklahoma||Big 12||2006||Impermissible telephone contacts with prospective athletes.|
|University of Oregon||Pacific-10||2004||Improper recruitment of a junior college football prospective student-athlete and unethical conduct.|
|University of Southern California||Pacific-10||2010||Failure to report violations; unethical conduct; impermissible benefits; violations of coaching staff limitations; impermissible recruiting contacts by a booster; impermissible inducements and extra benefits; lack of institutional control.|
|University of Southern California||Pacific-10||2001||Academic fraud by employees, who wrote papers for three athletes; providing false and misleading information to investigators; unethical conduct by athletes by knowingly submitting papers substantially completed by others.|
|University of South Carolina-Columbia||Southeastern||2005||Impermissible tutoring assistance, extra benefits, unethical conduct, failure to monitor and a lack of institutional control.|
|University of Texas-Austin||Big 12||2002||Violation of honesty standards and bona fide outside employment and a failure to monitor.|
|University of Utah||Mountain West||2003||Extra benefits, recruiting, including impermissible observation of recruits in athletically related activities; continuing eligibility; playing and practice season limits; unethical conduct (academic fraud) and a lack of institutional control.|
|University of Washington||Pacific-10||2004||Findings of violations of NCAA legislation regarding gambling, recruiting and a failure to monitor.|
|University of Washington||Pacific-10||2003||Impermissible recruiting contacts, telephone contacts and evaluation; impermissible attendance at a non-certified event and unethical conduct.|
|University of Wisconsin-Madison||Big 10||2001||Impermissible recruiting inducements; impermissible extra benefits - discounts and credits; impermissible transportation; impermissible housing benefits for prospects and failure to adequately monitor.|
|West Virginia University||Big East||2007||Violations of legislation governing impermissible try-outs; recruiting contact violations; recruiting inducements; impermissible out-of-season activities; impermissible housing and unethical conduct.|