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Indiana Through the Looking Glass

Just before Thanksgiving, the NCAA Infractions Committee handed down its judgment in the Kelvin Sampson/IU case -- a 3-year probation on IU and significant restrictions on any program that hires Kelvin Sampson up to 2013. According to the Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy, the Infractions Committee considered more stringent penalties:

Josephine Potuto, the Nebraska law professor who chaired Indiana's infractions hearings, met with the NCAA board of directors last month to discuss the committee becoming more aggressive with its penalties against major violators.

"We have to be sure that what the committee does reflects the seriousness of the violations and the nature of the violations [emphasis added] - and is fair to other institutions that have not committed violations," Potuto said Tuesday.

DeCourcy offered up some insightful observations, noting that restrictions on TV appearances and post-season appearances are "relics" of the 1970s. He suggests that in the 24/7 media world of ESPN and the internet, the NCAA can stigmatize a program and produce negative consequences without the outdated penalties:

Within days, charges were made public that Sampson had violated a ban on recruiting calls that resulted from a previous NCAA case at Oklahoma. Four months later, Sampson was gone. Before another month passed, the Hoosiers had closed out their season with a series of embarrassing losses and first-round tournament eliminations. Three months after that, every scholarship player who'd competed during that season was gone. The destruction couldn't have been more complete if they'd taken the basketballs from the gym.

Unfortunately, DeCourcy's piece also echoes the upside-down morality of the sports media and the NCAA Infractions Committee when it comes to what is "clean" and "dirty" in college sports:

Indiana had been clean for 50 years before all of this occurred. Potuto said that was among the reasons the committee accepted the penalties the school had self-imposed and did not hit the Hoosiers with much more. A three-year probationary period is mere decoration. It says, simply: Get in trouble again, and you're really in for it. As if everybody at IU didn't know that already.

Ok, Kelvin Sampson broke NCAA rules; he may be stupid; he may have relatively low ethical standards, and taking the world as it is, received what he deserved. Yet, phrases such as "seriousness of violations" and Indiana's 50-year "clean" program only makes sense if you have slipped through the NCAA wormhole and emerged out in the alternative, Alice-in-NCAA-land universe. After all, Sampson violated the (labor restricting) administrative rules of a cartel, not a moral code or legal code.

In the Alice world, "Dirty" Kelvin Sampson makes phone calls out of the designated recruiting period. "Clean" Bob Knight punches a Puerto Rican policeman, (reportedly) body-slams his AD, throws pots at secretary, nails a player with a WWF move to the neck, dumps a trash can on a fan, throws a chair, and verbally abuses who knows how many people. He can move on to a big paycheck in Lubbock before handing the program over to his son with head held high for his "integrity." In this world, gaining an advantage in violation of NCAA rules is dirty, but the NCAA members gaining an advantage by enforcing their collusive restrictions on player compensation that would run into thousands and millions at big-time basketball schools by any market test are the moral code. (For a simple market-based calculation in basketball, take the ticket-related revenues including seat-related contributions, local and conference TV-radio, and the $500+ million per year tourney revenues allocated mostly to the top 100 programs, multiply by 60% (roughly labor's share in pro sports collective agreements) and you easily come up with something on the order of $1 to $2 million per player for better teams).

Yes, I know this is old hat to most sports economists. In studying college sports for nearly 25 years now, I should have become accustomed to the spectacles through which NCAA-dom is seen; but, it still gets me now and then. The NCAA's ability to survive typical cartel internal destruction is astonishing. Even more head-scratching, though, is its ability to steer views of morality and legality. Since the 1980s, many states have made the NCAA collusion de facto law by passing laws that turn agents or boosters assisting college players into criminals. At least the Courts, while whistling past the graveyard and upholding NCAA player-labor collusive practices, have pretty much called the NCAA what it is.