The National College Athletics Association (NCAA) routinely hands down sanctions for violations of rules on recruiting, academic eligibility, and…

The National College Athletics Association (NCAA) routinely hands down sanctions for violations of rules on recruiting, academic eligibility, and illegal payments. At some schools, violations occur repeatedly. Such patterns suggest that current efforts to prevent unethical conduct in college sports are ineffective, despite the severity of some NCAA sanctions. With this as background, who should bear the consequences of such misconduct? Currently, it seems that leadership at different levels of universities reap the benefits of wins and championships, but that not all suffer the consequences of misconduct, even misconduct they (should) know about.

Despite its intentions and efforts, the NCAA is only part of the solution. Perhaps the ultimate solution lies in the quality of university-level leadership by boards of trustees, presidents, and athletic directors. The NCAA gives college presidents wide latitude to govern sports programs. The presidents therefore have official authority, and they typically report to boards of trustees who are in effect their bosses and thus responsible for their conduct. 

The Current and Prevailing View

There are at least two views on misconduct in college sports programs. One perspective, the prevailing view today, is that infractions are just part of doing business in college sports, and that sanctions are an unfortunate but nonetheless expected “business expense.” Economically this makes sense. Neither coaches, athletic directors, presidents, nor trustees want unethical activity to jeopardize the sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue generated by sports programs. For perspective, the top five revenue-generating college football teams netted over $300 million in profits in 2015. (That’s just five schools, and just profits.) Nor do leaders want to risk long-term damage to the reputation of the particular sports program or the larger university. For example, when Southern Methodist University football was found to be paying players, among other offenses, the NCAA imposed the “death penalty” by canceling the team’s 1987 season. The school was unable to field a team the following year, and missed that season as well. Many argue it has never recovered. Such consequences, the death penalty, have never been used by the NCAA since.

An Alternative View

But what if sanctions did extend to university leaders? For instance, what if the board of trustees at a given university said that if a player is suspended, so are the coach and athletic director, without pay? If the player is dismissed, so are the coach and athletic director, and perhaps even the college president. Business executives and managers are fired every day when their conduct jeopardizes far less money than is at stake in major college sports programs. 

While this solution may seem extreme and even unrealistic, it would certainly motivate presidents, athletic directors, and trustees to take greater responsibility for and oversight of the ethical conduct of their sports teams and programs. These leaders often bask in the rewards when their teams win championships, but they are able to contain or even avoid the costs of their misconduct. If both the rewards and the punishments extended beyond individual players, however, that behavior would likely change. It also is more likely that leaders, such as university presidents and trustees would be more proactive.

For instance, if these practices had been in place, perhaps Southern Methodist would not have hired men’s basketball coach Larry Brown. Yes, Brown had legendary success at both the college and professional levels. But his UCLA championship team had also been stripped of its title because of NCAA violations and when he later coached the University of Kansas, it was banned from the postseason play for a year and placed on probation for three.

If one of those universities’ presidents had been fired, along with the athletic directors and coaches, perhaps SMU might have considered hiring Coach Brown more carefully. Now that Brown and SMU have both been slammed with sanctions by the NCAA for Brown’s third set of violations, should others be held accountable—the president, the board of trustees, the athletic director? After all, they knowingly took the chance that it wouldn’t happen again, and it did. Making matters worse, President Turner of SMU is co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics whose stated mission is “to ensure that intercollegiate athletics programs operate within the educational mission of their colleges and universities.” It thus seems that they should have been especially tuned in to potential misconduct in athletic programs.

Does this offer guidance for Syracuse and Jim Boeheim, Louisville and Rick Pitino, or other college basketball or sports programs more generally, when dealing with their own scandals and long patterns of unethical conduct? In the current system, if anybody pays penalties in a meaningful way, it is the players who lose post-season opportunities and scholarships, compared to a token few-game suspension for coaches who are already wealthy. But what about the other leaders—athletic directors, presidents, trustees?

What Should Be Done About the Unethical Conduct in College Sports?

  1. Don’t change anything. The current means for dealing with misconduct, including NCAA sanctions, are sufficient. Justify.
  2. Modify the NCAA authority and sanctions, but keep the system more or less as it is. Explain.
  3. Hold university leadership accountable—some combination of coaches, their bosses the athletic directors, their bosses the presidents, and their bosses the boards of trustees. Explain.
  4. Invent another alternative and explain.

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