An overhaul to the enforcement structure that the National Collegiate Athletic Association uses to punish rules violators is expected to allow for harsher punishments for the worst violations and speed up the investigation process, which sometimes takes years to complete.
The new system is also designed to hold head coaches more accountable when they appear complacent about their employees skirting NCAA bylaws, and increases the size of the Division I Committee on Infractions to accelerate processing of cases.
The changes, approved Tuesday by the association's Division I Board of Directors, stem from the recommendations of a working group formed by NCAA President Mark Emmert in August 2011  as part of a broader effort to reform various aspects of NCAA operation and restore integrity to the association.
Those reforms touched on academic eligibility, athlete welfare and the contents of the (400-plus page) NCAA rulebook. But the enforcement structure has created its own set of problems for the organization, not least of which is the length of time it takes to complete an investigation. The NCAA has also been criticized for handing out seemingly arbitrary punishments -- in some cases issuing different penalties for similar violations at different schools; in another, completely circumventing the entire investigation and enforcement process to slap Pennsylvania State University with some of the most severe penalties ever handed down .
The new enforcement structure doesn't necessarily prevent those instances from recurring, but it does clean up the process. The changes, approved by the 13-member group of college presidents, athletics directors and commissioners, take effect Aug. 1, 2013 (any violations that are processed before that date will be subject to the current process and penalties; those processed after will be subject to the new system, with some exceptions depending on when the violations occurred).
"We have sought all along to remove the 'risk-reward' analysis that has tempted people -- often because of the financial pressures to win at all costs -- to break the rules in the hopes that either they won't be caught or that the consequences won't be very harsh if they do get caught," Emmert said Tuesday. "The new system the board adopted today is the result of a lot of hard work and membership input devoted to protecting the collegiate model."
The new structure replaces a two-tier system that categorized all violations as either "major" or "secondary" with a four-level system classifying violations from "severe" to "incidental."
The limited classification of the old system resulted in the lumping together of violations that were often vastly different in severity. For example, Ohio State University is awaiting punishment for a series of secondary violations  including the football compliance office's approving the use of mini basketballs during a football winter workout, but also multiple instances of athletic staff inappropriately contacting recruits, in one case making financial aid agreements with prospects that were not approved by the financial aid director.
Major violations included the more severe breaches of NCAA rules that gave teams a competitive advantage, such as players receiving impermissible benefits like free travel, tuition or compensation for memorabilia; allowing athletes to play while ineligible; academic fraud; or excessive and inappropriate coach contact with recruits.
The new structure gives the infractions committee more discretion in classifying violations based on severity. Here's the breakdown, quoted from NCAA documents:
- Level I: Severe breach of conduct. "Violations that seriously undermine or threaten the integrity of the NCAA collegiate model as set forth in the Constitution and bylaws, including any violation that provides or is intended to provide a substantial or extensive recruiting, competitive or other advantage, or a substantial or extensive impermissible benefit."
- Level II: Significant breach of conduct. "Violations that provide or are intended to provide more than a minimal but less than a substantial or extensive recruiting, competitive or other advantage; includes more than a minimal but less than a substantial or extensive impermissible benefit; or involves conduct that may compromise the integrity of the NCAA collegiate model as set for in the Constitution and bylaws."
- Level III: Breach of conduct. "Violations that are isolated or limited in nature; provide no more than a minimal recruiting, competitive or other advantage; and do not include more than a minimal impermissible benefit. Multiple Level IV violations may collectively be considered a breach of conduct."
- Level IV: Incidental issues. "Major infractions that are inadvertent and isolated, technical in nature and result in a negligible, if any, competitive advantage. Level IV infractions generally will not affect eligibility for intercollegiate athletics." (Level IV may be revised or eliminated as another working group, this one on rules, streamlines the Division I Manual.)
The NCAA says the enforcement process will focus most on violations that fall under Levels I and II, because they pose the most serious threats to the association's integrity. While the forms of punishment will remain the same (among them: postseason bans, scholarship reductions, head coach suspensions and recruiting limits), they will now "align more predictably with the severity of the violations."
As Ed Ray, chair of the working group and president of Oregon State University, put it: "Violations can be 'significant' when they have more than a passing consequence to the benefit of those who cheat. That can escalate to 'severe' if the violations are much broader and deeper in terms of who is implicated and the kind of behavior those people engaged in to get the result they did."
Committee Expansion; More Accountability for Coaches
A primary reason it took so long to process major cases was not the length of investigations, Ray said, but that it took too long to get the case on the infractions committee's docket. Ray hopes to cut in half the time it takes to adjudicate less complicated cases by expanding the infractions committee to as many as 24 members, and creating multiple panels from that group. About 10 hearings for Level I cases will take place annually, compared to five currently, and Level II cases can be scheduled monthly if necessary.
As for head coaches, Ray said, if they cannot provide evidence (such as policies, training and written materials for assistant coaches) to show they took the sort of responsibility the NCAA is looking for in terms of ensuring rules aren't violated, they will be held "just as culpable" as the assistant coaches who are more often punished by the infractions committee.
Previously, head coaches had to be proven to know about the violations or the NCAA had to establish a presumption of knowledge.
"What we settled on was not the presumption that the coach knows everything," Ray said. "But head coaches have to have these things in place or the presumption will be that they didn’t care enough to set standards and take responsibility for their programs. If there is no guidance and an assistant goes rogue, then it’s partly the head coach’s fault and he/she should be held accountable."
Nathan Hatch, chair of the Board of Directors and president of Wake Forest University, said these and still-forthcoming changes are "precisely" what Emmert and the college presidents had hoped for.
"A more sensible rules book combined with a more efficient way to enforce those rules will serve to sustain the collegiate model and restore public trust in college sports and the NCAA," Hatch said.