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A Primer on the NCAA Sanctions

Over the past 24 hours, there has been no shortage of press on the sanctions handed down by the NCAA this week. There has also been no shortage of ill-informed comments from bloggers and "real" journalists alike. Rather than try to confront all of this ignorance where it exists, here's an easy-as-pie list to help you with the more complicated issues that may arise. 


The Wins: There is a difference between a "vacated" win and a "forfeited" win. In both cases, the Alabama win will become an asterisked loss. The difference is in the record books of our opponents. Specifically, with a forfeit, the team that had previously had a check mark in the "loss" column, now has a win. With a vacated win, the team that really lost still has a loss, but now Alabama does, too. In this situation, the relevant Alabama wins were vacated, not forfeited. Which is to say: Sorry, Colorado, you didn't win your bowl game in 2007. Also of note, vacating the wins has no effect on Alabama's losses. Those all still stand. [Update: There's some discussion as to whether Alabama's affected wins turn into losses or just disappear entirely, and the NCAA manual is not really clear on that point.]

Repeat Violator Status and Probation: This may be the most common confusion. Probation is not the same as "repeat violator" status is not the same as a post-season ban. Probation is defined in the NCAA Bylaws at section Within that section, the Bylaws define the conditions of a probationary period:

The committee . . . may identify possible conditions that an institution must satisfy during a probationary period. Such conditions shall be designed on a case-by-case basis to focus on the institution's administrative weaknesses detected in the case and shall include, but not be limited to, written reports from the institution pertaining to areas of concern to the committee . . ., in-person reviews of the institution's athletics policies and practices . . ., implementation of educational or deterrent programs, and audits for specific programs or teams.

In other words, probation from the NCAA is a lot like other kinds probation. It's a way for the NCAA to keep an eye on teams who have committed major violations. Violating probation can lead to more sanctions or an extension of the probationary period.

Repeat violator status, the bylaws for which you can find quoted here, comes up when an institution commits a major infraction within five years of the start of another major infraction's penalties. Note two things: the date of the original infraction doesn't matter -- repeat violator status starts with the punishment. Second, repeat violator status is in no way, shape, or form related to probation. If the NCAA instituted a 10 year probationary period, after five years of that had elapsed, further major infractions would not trigger the repeat violator status.

Finally, post-season bans are just a punishment that can be handed down for infractions. They are separate from probation. Alabama being placed on probation for the next three years will not stop the team from appearing in the SEC Championship Game or in a bowl game.

The Repeat Violator Status Enhanced the Punishments: No, it didn't. If you look at the relevant bylaws, you will find that the permitted enhancements afforded by "repeat violator" status are few and severe. The only two that impact the actual teams involved are the so-called "death penalty" and the post-season ban. The other two are purely administrative. A quote from the COI:

"Because of the institution's status as a repeat violator, the Committee on Infractions considered both a ban on postseason competition and the enhanced penalties for repeat violators," the NCAA report said. "The committee decided against those penalties because the violations were spread across several sports and other penalties, such as vacation of records, were more appropriate.

In other words: they considered the repeat violator enhancements, and decided against using them.

Lack of Institutional Control vs. Failure to Monitor: These are two distinct violations, with the former being far more serious than the latter. Alabama was not cited for "Lack of Institutional Control" but for failure to monitor. From the Committee on Infractions report:

[T]he committee strongly considered making a more serious finding of a lack of institutional control, rather than a failure to monitor. However, because the institution ultimately detected the violations and promptly reported them, the committee decided against making the more serious finding of lack of institutional control.

[Note: this section was added after the article was initially published --PH]

Them Cheatin' Bammers Sold Textbooks: No, they didn't. Even the most egregious offenders did little more than borrow books for friends. Alabama operates a "book loan" system for its athletes. What this means is that the athletes take the books for free at the beginning of the semester. At the end of the semester, they are required to either a) return the books or b) pay for the books. So even the athletes who borrowed thousands of dollars in books were not found to have profited in any way from it. To wit, from Mal Moore's statement (emphasis supplied): "No players gained financially or otherwise; no competitive advantage was gained; all of the books were returned."

Also worth noting: the NCAA went through Alabama's athletic department with a fine-toothed comb and found nothing suggestive of any other violations.

OMG, The Whole Athletic Department Was Cheating: No, it wasn't. The NCAA made a clear distinction between intentional and unintentional violators. The intentional violators numbered less than two dozen and spanned only a handful of sports. These are the folks who knew they were getting something they shouldn't. The unintentional violators filled the balance of those found to have received impermissable benefits. The vast majority of the sports contained only these types of violators.

The reason the violations were so widespread was because many of the unintentional violations were caused by Alabama Bookstore staff bundling recommended materials (which are not permitted to be paid-for by the university) with required materials in the players' book orders. The Athletic Department would send over class schedules, the bookstore staff would put the books into bags, and then the players would pick them up. It is likely that the players involved, even if they knew the rule about required/recommended books, had no idea that they had received recommended materials. They trusted the bookstore staff.

I will spare you my rant about the NCAA not allowing schools to pay for materials that the professors recommend.

The Ruling Lacked All Irony: Also false. All you have to do is to think back to that school down the road's Hop On Pop scandal. Isn't it interesting that the organization that is constantly chirping about looking out for what's best for student athletes can find only secondary violations when a school is handing out free grades to athletes, but the moment a player gets an extra textbook they start vacating records and considering post-season bans?


So there you have it: misconceptions and misunderstandings about the penalties and NCAA bylaws cleared up in one easy-to-reference summary.