Why Self-Imposed Sanctions are Ineffective and How the NCAA Should Respond

In recent years, universities that were found to be in violation of NCAA policies preemptively imposed self-sanctions before the NCAA handed out its own set of punishments. In many cases, these self-imposed sanctions significantly influenced the NCAA in its penal determinations, and resulted in less severe sanction packages for schools that enacted them. 1 However, as righteous as they seem, self-imposed sanctions have proven self-serving for universities. While they outwardly demonstrate contrition, their purpose is to ultimately mitigate the NCAA’s reach into the future. Accordingly, self-imposed sanctions have dual consequences: first, they sacrifice the only people who are decidedly not responsible for past transgressions (i.e. the current and incoming athletes), and second, they preserve the university’s future revenues, and allow coaches and administrators to continue their careers relatively unscathed. Thus, the NCAA should not take self-sanctions into account when determining how to best penalize violator schools. Rather, penalties will have the most substantial deterrent effect when they narrowly target the future revenue stream of university at large, and coaches and administrators personally. Additionally, the NCAA can and should employ some penalties, such as allowing open-transfer, to protect current athletes from the effects of violator schools’ self-imposed sanctions. Syracuse’s recent scandal provides an excellent case study to support this.

On March 6, the NCAA handed down some of the stiffest sanctions on record to the Syracuse University athletic program as punishment for infractions dating to 2001. Syracuse’s violations included its failure to enforce the NCAA’s policies on academic standards and benefits to athletes, and failure to enforce its own drug testing procedures. These sanctions, which were largely directed at the men’s basketball program, required Syracuse to vacate 108 wins, suspended venerated coach Jim Boeheim for nine conference games, eliminated twelve outstanding scholarships, reduced the number of recruiters allowed in the field, and imposed huge economic penalties that could be upwards of $1M. Virtually the only things the NCAA left untouched were Syracuse’s national championship win in 2003, and its postseason participation in coming years.

Of course, the severity of these sanctions is unsurprising given the number and seriousness of the violations, all of which were discovered over the course of an eight-year investigation conducted by the NCAA. The investigation was initiated when Syracuse appeared in front of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions to self-report a number of violations it had discovered during its own internal investigation. As the NCAA’s involvement heated up, and the number of infractions piled up, Syracuse decided to impose its own sanctions as a “further means of acknowledging past mistakes,” and banned itself from post-season participation in 2015.

Noble as this effort seemed, it was criticized in the press as a self-serving way for the University to attempt to dissuade the NCAA from imposing future postseason bans. Future bans would, of course, severely curtail the University’s ability to recruit and, therefore, make money in the long-term. Because 2015 was a rebuilding year for the Orange, the self-imposed ban ended the season early for the team’s seniors, but likely won’t have any meaningful ramifications for coming years. Nonetheless, the NCAA appeared swayed; as noted, its lengthy list of sanctions did not impose any additional stipulations on postseason play.

Accordingly, Syracuse’s “successful” use of self-imposed sanctions illustrates the serious concerns around such measures, and raises larger questions about the best general approach for the NCAA to punish the right people the right way when they mismanage college athletics. In an article published in the International Journal of Sports Finance, Jason Winfree and Jill McCluskey argue that there are substantial financial incentives for violator schools to impose self-sanctions before the enforcement body imposes punishment.2  Their data reflects that not only do violator schools choose sanctions that minimize lost revenue based on earning projections for upcoming seasons, but also that the final punishment that violators who have self-sanctioned receive is significantly reduced as compared to schools that do not self-sanction. This conclusion is, of course, borne out by the effect of Syracuse’s self-sanctioning: there will be no future post-season bans, and as Boeheim continues to attract new talent, Syracuse seems poised to rise again—and quickly—while current athletes are denied an irreplaceable opportunity.

If the NCAA wants to ensure that its sanctions will have a truly deterrent effect, it shouldn’t mitigate its punishments according to what the university has self-imposed. In fact, it should seek to limit the impact of self-imposed sanctions insofar as such measures tend to visit the sins of administration on the easiest victims. In an article for the Boston College Law Review, Maureen Weston argues that the most effective form of sanctions would financially burden coaches directly to ensure that the objectives of the coach as a personal matter are better aligned with the institutional objectives of the NCAA.  She also pushes for financial penalties against the university that are tailored as a percentage of sports revenue, akin to the “luxury tax” imposed in baseball, and open transfer for the maximum protection of current and incoming athletes.  A penalty structure such as this would prevent universities, like Syracuse, from burdening current athletes with self-imposed sanctions and would allow the NCAA to target the specific people who failed to control their programs.

Leave a Reply