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Tough New NCAA Penalties Could Hit College Teams Unevenly

The NCAA on Tuesday approved a stiffer penalty structure to help stamp out excessive violations in major programs. The changes are designed to speed up the infractions-adjudication process, make penalties more consistent with violations, and hold coaches more accountable for problems.

But some observers worry that the new structure could open the door for wealthier programs to squirm out of the toughest sanctions.

Dennis Dodd, senior college-football columnist at CBSSports.com, notes that the NCAA used the word “mitigating” twice in its news release announcing the changes, suggesting there’s room for violators to “plead down.”

By plead down, I mean that the schools with the most lawyers will be able to mitigate the best. Get used to a lot of Texas Southerns and Sacramento States getting the NCAA hammer. Expect the next major program on the hot seat to worm its way into lessened penalties because of a six-figure tab paid to some law firm.

Even if the biggest programs can’t buy their way to lesser penalties, some athletic departments could use the new structure to help justify a run-up in staff. Programs like the University of Southern California, which faced major NCAA sanctions two years ago, have already beefed up their compliance staffs and have the budget to add more. Obviously not everyone can afford that luxury.

The changes give the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions more muscle, potentially expanding the group to 24 members from its current 10, and allowing it to hand down a tougher set of penalties.

But whether the committee will do so is another question. One expected change: The committee’s composition could become far more diverse in future years, as current and former presidents, coaches, and athletic directors will now be encouraged to serve alongside lawyers and compliance specialists.

While some of those people may be willing to issue the harshest penalties, others are likely to temper the mood.

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