I know that the NCAA Committee on Infractions isn't a well-regarded institution around these parts, but I think that they probably get a little more hate than they deserve.
For starters we have to recognize that the COI does not write the rules. We also have to recognize that their job is a difficult one and they probably don't have the man-power or jurisdiction that they need to really do it perfectly. You can go back quite a ways and find that there have been no great affronts to the Alabama nation from the NCAA -- when all was said and done, the punishments we've gotten have been reasonably proportionate to the wrongs committed.
With that in mind, it's worth taking a look at the Michigan scandal.
First, understand that of the five infractions, some of them do seem minor. And if you're looking to make excuses (ahem, Dr. Saturday), they should be easy to come by. In a world as opaque as Division I college football, it will always be easy to suggest that everyone else is guilty, too. You could also blame the busy-body reporter that found the violations. None of those courses of action validate Michigan's behavior, though, they just serve as distractions.
So what'd UMich (allegedly) do? Here's a brief summary:
- They required players to participate in as many as five hours of football activities per day. The limit is four hours. "Psh, one hour a day? Big freakin deal.", right? Not so fast. If those are your hours, you probably care. You probably also care if Michigan is an opponent. For every 100 hours of daily workouts you get, Michigan was getting as much as 125.
- A graduate assistant lied to the NCAA during the course of their investigation.
- Michigan hired coaches, called them something else and then had them do things that coaches weren't allowed to do, like supervise "optional" workouts.
- Most damningly, they let all of this happen and weren't really paying attention to it or keeping their paperwork in order.
As infractions go, this isn't buying recruits or letting players live in mansions for free, granted. But it is a serious case of "where there's smoke, there's probably fire." Yes, sure, these are "technicalities" but remember what technicalities are: they're rules.
Even aside from the competitive advantage that sneaking practice hours gets you (in Michigan's case, I guess the answer to that appears to be "very little") we have to recognize that being a student athlete, especially in the modern era of graduation rate requirements, is a difficult job, and allowing coaches to take hours here and there just makes it worse.
If the NCAA's mission is to protect the student athlete, this is one of the most legitimate infractions cases they've pursued in quite some time because, in a very real sense, they're protecting athletes (at Michigan and everywhere else) from "practice creep" where the 4 hour-a-day limit morphs into four-and-a-half, and then into five, and the only option the athlete has is to just grin and bear it because you know there's some hot-shot freshman who's just dying to get on the field.
The bottom line is that the rules are the rules, and if the limit is four hours a day, a coach with competence and integrity would ensure that his workouts didn't exceed that limit. It'll be interesting to see how this and the USC cases play out.