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College Sports, Division I, Education

Revamping the NCAA Penalty Structure through “Penalty Guidelines”

The NCAA presidential retreat concluded yesterday with the promise of sweeping changes to improve collegiate athletics. NCAA President Mark Emmert stated “the presidents all came together with a very clear, strong consensus that status quo and continued order of the day is insufficient and that we need to have a change in a number of key areas and we need to have it quickly.” One of these key changes is revamping the NCAA’s penalty structure for rule violators. Currently, the NCAA Committee on Infractions assesses penalties on a case-by-case basis, and the harshness of the penalties will vary depending on the severity of the violations. Penalties can include probationary periods, recruiting restrictions, vacation of records, bans on post-season play, and even fines. This problem with using such a subjective system is the increased possibility of producing inconsistent results. ESPN’s Pat Forde compared the system to the famous Forrest Gump aphorism. “COI rulings are like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get. Or whether the chair of the committee will be able to explain it in the slightest.”

Following the presidential retreat, President Emmert suggested that the answer to penalty disparities may be implementing a system akin to sentencing guidelines. If the NCAA modeled their system after the United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines it would look somewhat like a mathematical equation using the following factors; (1) seriousness of the violation; (2) past violation history of the school (repeat offenders); and (3) aggravating and mitigating factors. First, the NCAA would need to set a base level for different violations. For example, a student-athlete receiving an extra-benefit worth over $500 may be set at a base level of 40. A coach sending a text message to a prospective student-athlete may be set at a base level of 5. This base level may also be increased by specific characteristics of the violation. For example, if the coach had sent numerous text messages to the prospective student-athletes or to multiple prospective students-athletes, the base level would increase to a set amount based on the guidelines.

After the seriousness of the violation was determined the Committee on Infractions would then look at the school’s history in terms of violations. The United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines puts defendants  into one of the six “categories” based on his or her criminal history. The NCAA would need to create categories based on a school’s history of violations as well as determine how far into the past the Committee on Infractions can look.

After the determination of the seriousness of the violation and the history of the offender the Committee on Infractions would use a “penalty table” to determine the penalty range for the violation(s) in the case. Following this determination the penalty range could be changed once again using aggravating or mitigating circumstances. Aggravating circumstances would make the violation more serious and would result in a more extensive penalty. Examples of aggravating circumstances could include actions such as a failure by the institution to cooperate with the investigation. Mitigating factors may lead to a lighter sentence. Examples of mitigating circumstances could include actions such as corrective measures taken by the institution prior to the Committee on Infractions hearing or the proactive steps taken by the institution to ensure compliance prior to the violation.

President Emmert and the retreat participants have created a lot of positive “buzz” since the retreat. However, it is important to remember that the retreat was just the beginning of addressing the issues facing intercollegiate athletics. President Emmert must continue to work with the NCAA staff, conferences, member institutions and other involved parties to ensure that this “buzz” is turned into results.


About Justin P. Sievert, Esquire

Bar Admissions (North Carolina, Florida and Tennessee) Practice Area (College Sports Law)


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