Archive for Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Fly Route

July 19, 2007

Thank God the NCAA finally made it official. Sure, it's been obvious cheating by member schools is widely accepted, but it hasn't been official, until now.

The NCAA tolerates cheating. The recent "punishments" leveled against the University of Oklahoma make it hard to come to any other conclusion.

The Sooners got in trouble because two football players had been working at a car dealership -- er ... Rather, they had been not working at a car dealership. Rhett Bomar and J.D. Quinn were paid for hours they didn't work at Big Red Sports and Imports.

The penalty for the players was swift. Having no desire to be associated with someone dumb enough to get caught, OU sent the players packing as soon as the initial Internet based rumors were confirmed. Each has since transferred to much smaller, out of the way schools -- no doubt a punishment -- and each had to repay their ill-begotten gains, roughly $8,000 apiece.

Oklahoma, meanwhile, must vacate its wins from 2005, had a few years of probation tacked on to its already existing probation, and will lose two football scholarships for each of the next two seasons.

There's a lot to love about the whole thing. Let's start with the word "vacate." Oklahoma will be vacating its wins, not forfeiting them. The team played to an 8-4 record, but history will know the Sooners as 0-4.

Let's skip past the fact that this is a pretty much meaningless penalty and cut straight to the thought behind it. By imposing such a penalty in the first place, the NCAA seems to acknowledge that the football program knowingly cheated. Otherwise, there's no point in changing the records at all.

So if that is established, why stop at "vacating" the wins? Why not forfeit them? The players were ineligible because they were being paid. If we're assuming Oklahoma knowingly played ineligible players, they didn't just "not win" those games, they lost them.

I don't argue with the hope of tallying an extra win for my team. I argue with the hope of preserving logic. If Oklahoma knowingly cheated, they lost. Cheaters lose, unless of course the NCAA is deciding things.

Forfeiting, vacating: it really doesn't make a difference. Both punishments would be equally lame and insufficient. Ditto on losing two scholarships. As Mark Mangino so eloquently pointed out when KU was "slammed" by its own sanctions last year, programs rarely are actually using every available scholarship, so losing two is more of an irritation than a punishment.

These punishments in no way fit the crime. Two of its players were receiving cash payments. It's foolish to think the team didn't know something was up with the car dealership, and addressing the problem of others paying your players with a wink and a nod is no better than paying the players yourself. Paying players is at the very heart of what the NCAA is against, yet the only punishment is losing two non-critical scholarships and knocking their all-time record back a few notches?

I'm sitting here and trying to find a worse way to cheat than paying your players, and the only thing I can come up with is actually cheating on the field, like always getting away with playing with 12 people, or using a laser-guided football.

What about a post-season ban? That would make Oklahoma and every other NCAA program -- and I have no doubt plenty others are equally guilty -- take notice. Big bowl games can make or break an athletic department's year financially, and if you threaten to take those away people will notice.

What about taking away 10, 15 or 20 scholarships? Each school is allowed 85 kids on scholarship, and can only take 25 each season, so for two years, the Sooners would only get 15 kids. It wouldn't cripple their program and they'd surely bend the numbers on both the front and back end of the window with early- and late-enrolling junior college transfers, but at least the coaches would have to work, whereas now they'll be hard pressed to even remember the penalty exists.

The problem of cutting corners in NCAA sports by no means starts or stops with Oklahoma. It starts and stops at the top, with the NCAA, and its continued reluctance to adequately punish blatant cheating.

A laser-guided football -- now that's cheating. I'd guess it would never be legal, but when it comes to the NCAA and penalties, I'm done guessing.

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