Do NCAA Rules Work?

Chapel Hill, N.C.–That’s the provocative question Kathryn Shea teed up here today at the annual meeting of the College Sport Research Institute. After studying decades’ worth of major-infractions cases involving men’s basketball, she’s come away with a pretty strong view: Not only do the rules appear to do little to deter violations, but the NCAA has become more lax in enforcing the stiffest penalties over time.

Shea, an assistant professor of sport management at Springfield College, looked at an admittedly narrow set of data: 167 major-infractions cases involving recruiting inducements in men’s basketball. But she came away with some striking findings:

Because colleges have little incentive to point out problems in their programs, few actually do. In her sample, just 13 percent of institutions self-reported the violations.

And as the NCAA has diluted the rules governing recruiting inducements, that’s led to fewer rules violations as well as less-severe penalties against the institutions that still mess up, she says.

Over time, the NCAA has moved away from penalties tied to institutions’ financial interests.

In the cases she studied, the NCAA enforced a postseason ban on men’s basketball programs that violated recruiting rules just nine times since 1997. Between 1983 and 1996, it handed down that penalty 34 times in programs that failed to follow recruiting rules.

In addition, she found, the NCAA has enforced a TV ban only once since 1997, compared to 46 times between 1952 and 1996.

By contrast, the association has increased its use of the show-cause penalty against coaches, more frequently vacated the records of institutions, and docked scholarships from teams more often in recent years, she says.

“The NCAA is just not enforcing the toughest penalties any more,” she says. “It costs more to comply with NCAA rules than it does to violate them.”

As the NCAA attempts to revamp its enforcement process–its current proposals would put more teeth into sanctions, including increasing financial penalties–Shea says its leaders need to pay more attention to how violations are detected.

“You can write any rule you want,” she says, “but if you don’t have people reporting or catching violations, it won’t mean a thing.”

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