On Tuesday October 30th, the NCAA Board of Directors announced the adoption of a new enforcement structure that, among other things, creates additional levels of infractions, enhances accountability for head coaches, and seeks to punish violators with sanctions that more appropriately align with the actions that occurred.  The most striking of these new initiatives, to be implemented beginning in August of 2013, is the creation of the new four-tiered structure for violation classification.  

Under the current model, violations are classified as either major or secondary.  The new system sets forth violations as follows: Level I, Severe breach of conduct; Level II, Significant breach of conduct; Level III, Breach of conduct; and Level IV, Incidental issues.  A copy of the NCAA’s press release may be found here.  This new structure is the product of a year-long effort by the thirteen-member Board comprised of presidents, athletic directors, and conference commissioners.   President Mark Emmert described the changes as part of a devotion to “protecting the collegiate model,” in part by “remov[ing] the ‘risk-reward’ analysis that has tempted people.”   

These changes come on the heels of increasing external pressure for a more consistent and transparent process, with a number of major infractions cases serving as the backdrop for this magnified criticism.   Greater accountability and stricter sanctions is undoubtedly a step in the right direction when it comes to enforcement of what would be considered major infractions under the current framework.  The NCAA should be applauded for taking measures to ensure consequences for coaches who plead ignorance while violations blatantly occur on their watches.  But at the same time, the new violation structure is troublesome.   Despite admirable efforts to construct a better system, this new four-tiered structure for violation classification fails to ameliorate many of the common concerns expressed with respect to NCAA Bylaws and enforcement of the same.  Hopefully, this will be cleared-up with the upcoming changes to the substantive “rules” in the Bylaws.    

The NCAA Bylaws are often denounced as too lengthy and too complex, and deservedly so.  Moving from a two-tiered violation structure to a four-tiered system, if not matched-up with more common sense in rule substance, is an obvious step backward, and is counterintuitive if the desired outcome is a more workable framework.  Increased confusion is even more likely when one considers the near endless interpretations that could be attributed to the definitions describing each tier.  For example, consider the difference between a violation that “threatens the integrity of the NCAA,” versus a violation that merely “provides more than a minimal, but less than a substantial…advantage.”  One definition classifies a Level I violation, while the other corresponds with Level II, but is there really a difference?   The definitions may mean something different to a coach versus someone in compliance at a school or enforcement at the NCAA, so how then is the goal of deterrence met for the problem that President Emmert describes as a calculation of risk vs. reward made by coaches who currently do not have sufficient risk to their livelihoods or respective programs.

Under this system, inconsistencies may abound to an even greater degree than under the current model.  This is likely to complicate the NCAA’s investigative measures, which is problematic given the Association’s already limited resources; resources so limited that some have even suggested that the NCAA get out of the enforcement business altogether (for a more in depth discussion of this proposal, see this well-done piece by Attorney Stephen A. Miller, recently published in The Atlantic).  Finally, if the NCAA is really student-athlete first, then this measure does nothing to address the countless Bylaws that punish student-athletes for technical violations that provide no competitive advantage, and do little more than burden an already overwhelmed enforcement staff.  Again, it is worth pondering, is an “incidental issue” even worth sanctioning?  I hope that reforms not just in terms of a scholarship enhancement, but in terms of rules affecting student-athletes’ behavior on a day-to-day basis are addressed in the coming months.

Since the NCAA has chosen to divert its attention first to the method in which these intricate and often superfluous regulations are classified, my worry is that dealing with the substance later will lead to a continuance in seeing violations shoe-horned into a rigid framework that sometimes, but does not always fit.  For those that desire more consistency in results, do you want the NCAA to have something akin to Federal Sentencing Guidelines, or more common sense in results?  I am not yet convinced that the new enforcement structure will get us more common sense in results, which many (myself included) would like to see as opposed to more rigidity.

Over time, perhaps this will prove to be a positive step toward a streamlined, consistent, and fair process.  For now though, a more detailed systemization of the NCAA’s enforcement structure only seems to complicate matters further if there is not significant overhaul to the substance of the rules themselves.  While my experiences may leave me a bit biased, until we see a comprehensive reassessment of the actual Bylaw language (promised in the next few months), I foresee this self-proclaimed “overhaul” as little more than a re-branding exercise.

Originally published on Sportslawblog *Hat tip to Brian Konkel for his work on this piece.

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