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The NCAA Gets Tough

In a Thursday column for ESPN.com, Andy Katz writes about the sanctions handed down to Baylor University's basketball program for rules infractions. Head Coach Dave Bliss and an assistant coach are banned from the NCAA for 10 and 5 years, and the program may not play any regular season non-conference games next year. All of this comes after Baylor had already placed its program on probation for a year including the loss of post-season play (a big self-imposition because this permitted several players to transfer without sitting out a year). Katz notes

The Baylor case is one of the most extreme since, perhaps, the last death penalty case at SMU in the 1980s. Baylor was close to being shut down for 2005-06 since the committee used that same provision to get rid of non-conference games for the first time ever ...

The infractions committee sent a serious message with this case, one that should be heeded by all institutions, coaches and players in Division I.

The "serious message" sent is open to interpretation. Katz implies that the NCAA signaled schools of its willingness to come down hard on rule-breaking. An alternative (though not mutually exclusive) spin on this message would be Abe Lemmons' great quip, "The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky that it put Cleveland State on probation."

My 1992 book on the NCAA as a cartel with Trey Fleisher and Bob Tollison advances the Lemmons' view more so than Katz's. The book highly simplifies a complex organization. The cooperative-competetive games within the NCAA involve a number of dimensions with a variety of coalitions. Nevertheless, I still think that several of our basic insights hit on key behavioral outcomes. The pertinent one here is that the NCAA does want to send a "get tough" signal but that the SMU's or Baylor's of the world are much more likely to be sacrificed at the altar than the real big boys. High-flying programs such as Notre Dame, Florida State, Miami, Michigan, and Alabama have all had "serious" misconduct both alleged and "proven." One can argue about the "seriousness" of any one episode versus another or about "patterns" of conduct. While Michigan and Alabama received sanctions that were stiff for "big schools," neither received the death penalty of SMU or modified death penalty that Baylor even though the cases involved huge direct payments to players, dwarfing anything in the Baylor case.

The "stick-it-to-the-little-guy" hypothesis is often misunderstood. It does not imply that the Infactions Committee members openly discuss differential standards or even have that kind of idea in mind. Only a "behaviorlist" view of the world requires such. Instead, the Committee members need only to respond to the (strong) incentives to keep the big boys up and running. The makeup of the Committee may itself lend itself in this direction (currently 3 members are from the University of Alabama). Even without membership being stacked, all members are aware that a death penalty or modified version of it for a Michigan or Alabama may send a signal but also imposes huge, negative consequences for the rest of the NCAA schools. In contrast, Baylor's loss of half of their season creates little impact on the NCAA as a whole. One might call it a version of the "too big to fail" kind of incentive sometimes at play in public policy.