College football is a big business these days. Teams generate tens of millions of dollars of revenue every season, and for top players, a lucrative professional football contract worth millions of dollars usually awaits the end of their eligibility. Given all the money associated with modern college football, players, coaches, and boosters face huge incentives to bend or break the rules. Today officials handed down one of the harshest and most rarely used penalties available in sport to a football program: the “death penalty.” Suspension of the program for one year.
The truly bizarre element of this story is that the “officials” were not from the NCAA, they were from Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), and the team was not a US football factory like USC (who were spanked soundly by the NCAA last week for recruiting violations), but the Waterloo University Warriors, who went 3-5 in 2009 CIS play and started out the season 0-3, getting soundly beaten by the likes of McMaster and the U. of Ottawa. 9 players tested positive for steroids, and one has been arrested for possession and trafficking in anabolic steroids.
I realize that many CIS football players go on to play in the CFL, and for the first time ever, a CIS player, defensive end Vaughn Martin, was selected in the 2009 NFL draft (in the 4th round). And CIS football games are broadcast on television in Canada. But I am on the faculty at a large public research university with one of the top athletic programs in the CIS, and I would be hard pressed to provide a single tidbit of information about the University of Alberta Golden Bears football team, other than they play at Foote Field, capacity 3,500, which is located on some obscure corner of campus I have never visited (I have been to some Golden Bears hockey games — they have won 13 national championships and regularly give the Oilers rookies a stern test in an annual charity game held on campus). CIS football in no way resembles NCAA football. The coach of the Golden Bears football team is not the highest paid public employee in Alberta, or the highest paid university employee. The financial incentives to take steroids in the CIS are nowhere near the financial incentives for NCAA football players to take steroids.
The lesson from the Waterloo Death Penalty is that the incentives to cheat in sport do not have to be economic. Athletes playing at the top level of their sport, where ever they may be, are often motivated to win at all costs, even if the payoff to winning is primarily psychic, not economic.