Friday, 19 September 2003

The Southeastern Conference and the Death Penalty

The revelations of five-figure cash payouts to Auburn players (more on the story here) have Pete Holiday at the SEC Fanblog speculating about what sort of penalties Auburn could face from the NCAA:

This, of course, raises an interesting question: If a team commits major violations while on probation, how does the punishment work? Death Penalty? Forfeiture of X seasons from the time of the violation? Bowl Ban / Scholarship cuts for upcoming seasons? My guess is that the NCAA has no idea how they’d handle it and would resort to whatever would be least-consistent with their previous rulings.

In the comments, an discussion has broken out: can the NCAA’s infractions committee impose meaningful sanctions on Auburn? Jeff Quinton of Backcountry Conservative thinks not:

Is the NCAA willing to invoke the death penalty now though? When the last round of Alabama investigations started those rumors it came out that the Death Penalty would be something the NCAA would avoid if at all possible because of the impact on revenue it would have on other schools in the SEC.

Kevin Donahue, however, says:

I don’t think the NCAA would think twice about handing out the death penalty to an SEC team. If they don’t crack the whip in this case, when could they ever?

Assuming the Auburn investigation amounts to something, and bearing in mind the continuing investigation of Alabama and inquiry targeting Mississippi State, it is quite possible that half of the SEC West will be on some form of probation in 2004. Clearly the existing penalties aren’t having sufficient deterrent effect on boosters and programs.

But the “death penalty“—the forced shutdown of the football program for at least two years—isn’t likely to happen. Now that big money has found NCAA football and basketball, college athletics is run like a business, particularly in the SEC, the most profitable league in the country.

Jeff is right that the death penalty would hurt revenue, even at the other SEC schools, due to the sharing of bowl, tournament and television receipts. But that’s not necessarily the NCAA’s motivation—the NCAA doesn’t see a dime of that money.

The NCAA’s fear is that the SEC and its member schools, faced with a “death penalty” situation and losing a significant chunk of their funds, would jump ship and encourage members of the rest of the Big Six conferences to form a new basketball-football semi-pro league beyond the influence of the NCAA. Combined with a number of schools from the Big 12, C-USA, and the ACC, a “super SEC” of 24 or so teams would have a lock on most of the talent with NFL and NBA potential in the southeast and a large market that is underserved by both pro leagues.

So for now the NCAA will try to muddle through. But soon an SEC school is going to be found to have done something so egregious that the NCAA has to impose the death penalty to maintain its credibility. And that day will be the last day of college sports as we know it in the southeast.