Perspective on the Textbook "Scandal"

I've just finished my second read of the NCAA's Notice of Allegations and the University's 67-page response. Now that our rival fans are all atwitter with anticipation about scholarship reductions, bowl bans, and probation, it's time to take a look at some of the minor details that seem to have been passed over.

Major Violations

A lot of (digital) ink has been spilled about how these are major violations (for proper effect, use your "serious mom" voice). While that word is certainly a loaded one, it really doesn't mean a great deal. The NCAA Bylaws (19.02.2.1-2) define a major violation as anything that's not a secondary violation, and it defines a secondary violation as follows (emphasis supplied):

A secondary violation is a violation that is isolated or inadvertant (sic) in nature, provides or is intended to provide only a minimal recruiting, competitive or other advantage and does not include any significant recruiting inducement or extra benefit. Multiple secondary violations by a member institution may collectively be considered as a major violation.

Whereas things like extra phone calls can either be major or secondary depending on their perceived benefit, one reading of that rule makes (literally) any "extra benefit" a major violation. As an aside, this is one of the reasons that the NCAA's enforcement history is so nonsensical -- their legislation is rife with subjective qualifiers and there's little in the way of direction as to what "significant" means.


That having been sorted out, let's take a look at what actually happened and what we can expect going forward from the NCAA. (Lots, lots more below the fold)

Failure to Monitor

In addition to the extra textbooks, the NCAA has alleged, and the University subsequently admitted, to a "failure to monitor". The interesting thing about this charge is how easy it is to get. Virtually any major violation is a candidate either for a "failure to monitor" charge or a "lack of institutional control" charge because neither of them require the level of severity that fans tend to assume. In this case, the University hasn't been charged with failing to monitor compliance in general, but failing to monitor a textbook distribution system.

In reading the document, it seems like the only thing the University could have done to properly monitor the system is to actually cross check the actual book purchases with the actual course schedule after the add/drop period has ended.  That doesn't seem like an unreasonable thing to do, but when you stop to consider how many student athletes there are, it's not a trivial undertaking. Instead the University had devised a system that they believed would be compliant, and a few student athletes found a way around the system and spread that info to others.

As much as I think Mal Moore is a blind squirrel of an A.D. who found his proverbial nut with Saban, I'm not sure all the breathless "Thank God we have Jay Jacobs!" nonsense from the Plains is really all that compelling. Think about it this way, behind door number one, you have a "textbook scandal" but a coach with numerous trips to the SEC Title game and a National Championship on his resume. Behind door number two, you've got a coach with a 5-12 record and a buch of athletes who not only aren't buying extra textbooks, they might not need to buy any at all!

Yeah, y'all can keep Door #2. We're good here.

Required Materials

Almost nothing has been written about the fact that fully half of the reported violations are a direct result of bookstore personnel pre-packaging "recommended" or "optional" materials for the athletes, and not the athletes intentionally violating the book policy.

The basic process for athletes getting their books is something like this: the Athletic Department sends the bookstore a list of athletes. The bookstore pulls their schedules and then puts all of the books for that schedule in a bag. At pick-up time, the athletes show up and are given their bag of books.

Unfortunately, the NCAA has deemed that Universities can only pay for required textbooks, which means optional and "recommended" materials are out of bounds, so when the stressed-out, work-study employee is busy pulling books from the shelves, they were expected to actually look to see if each book was required or not. What was going on, instead, was that those kids were just going to the section where a particular class's books were and dropping one of everything into the bag.

The smallest reported violation, according to the documents, was $0.35 for a test booklet. Talk about a major violation.

Nothing but Textbooks

Every single item purchased outside of the NCAA rules was a legitimate educational item. Not always for the right people, but never anything like clothing, ipods, or computers. Which is to say that, even if these books were going to people who weren't eligible for them, the most they could really do is learn something with them. Thank God the NCAA is protecting us from that.

"But Pete!" you might exclaim, "I bet they took those extra books and sold them for a straight cash profit!"

Don't you worry your pretty little head about that, dear reader. As was stated numerous times in the documents, nobody made a single penny from the system. Because of the University's book loan system, any textbooks which weren't returned had to be paid for by the student athlete who "borrowed" them, which is to say that it would be basically impossible to even break-even on the deal.

Many Programs Affected

While much is being made about the half-dozen football players who were suspended last season for their involvment, this actually spans sports programs and was actually discovered because a bookstore employee noticed a female athlete with a $1,600 text-book bill. Turns out that she was buying for herself and two non-eligible (probably non-scholarship) athletes.

Before anyone gets too excited, it's important to keep in mind that any athlete found to have gotten more than $100 in extra textbooks, was withheld from competition pending a reinstatement petition to the NCAA. All such petitions were granted, which suggests that even (that branch) the NCAA doesn't really think this is a huge deal.

While some might argue that it's worse to have more programs involved, put me on the side of the argument that suggests that this is just more evidence that this was irresponsible kids taking advantage of a hole in the system rather than some special treatment the football team was getting.

What's Going To Happen

While our good friends at Track 'em Tigers have predicted that this will be the event that causes Saban to leave the Capstone (no, sadly, I'm not kidding -- hope springs eternal, I guess), the odds that this amounts to anything significant is slight.

For starters, we're talking about a self-discovered and self-reported violation, the ensuing investigation of which turned up absolutely no other wrong-doing whatsoever, and you can bet that the dozens of interested parties were looking as hard as they could. Further, the violations took place over the course of just three semesters.

Secondly, for better or for worse, the handful of athletes who knew they were breaking the rules didn't realize they were breaking NCAA rules, and you can see their point: what "benefit" did they get from getting a book they either had to return or pay for out of their own pocket? Sure, they skipped to the front of the line and probably got first dibs on hotly contested textbooks, but in the grand scheme of things, is that really a big deal?

This all to say nothing of the athletes who didn't know they were breaking anyone's rules because some over-worked bookstore student employee got a little lazy with their compliance manual reading and gave them more than they were entitled to. Don't forget that this last type of violation comprised half of the dollar value and more than half of the participants.

This is not to say that the athletes who rang up more than $1,500 in book charges weren't doing anything wrong. They very clearly were, and, trivial though the benefits might have been, they were exta benefits. That said, if we're going to try to keep this in context, let's remember that not all extra benefits are created equal, and the NCAA still hasn't moved on the Reggie Bush issue.

I would be truly astounded if this amounted to more than a few years probation (which is not the same thing as a bowl ban) and some minor scholarship reductions. For football, this would probably come as a reduction of the 85-player cap rather than the 25 grant-in-aid maximum per year, just because the sheer number of players brought in over the last two seasons means that next year will probably be a smaller class.

The One Caveat

The one thing that Alabama fans should be weary of, and our rival fans can hope for, is that the NCAA is nothing if not completely absurd when it comes to punishments for violations. The only thing you can really count on them to do is exactly what you think they shouldn't.

Which isn't to say that they never get anything right, but the number of their infractions decisions that have made me scratch my head and wonder what they were thinking is pretty high.

Add to that the fact that there are a number of members of the Committee on Infractions with potential conflicts of interest here (See, e.g., the fact that Miami's Athletic Director is on the committee) and you wind up with a formula for some very confusing rulings.

Conclusion

While I'm sure that what punishment is handed down will span a number of sports, I really don't anticipate anything more than probation and the loss of a handful of scholarships (3-5 in football, would be my guess). I think that, despite the "failure to monitor" charge, the fact that we're talking about textbooks that were either returned or paid for out of pocket is really going to soften the blow here.

If it doesn't, one has to wonder how bringing the hammer down for something like this is going to impact future infractions hearings.

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