Imperfect Justice: NCAA Sanctions in College Football

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Oregon Ducks v. USC Trojans :: Credit Neon TommyNCAA sanctions played a large role in this year’s college football season, most notably in the case of sanctions against the USC Trojans. USC was sanctioned for “lack of institutional control” with the loss of 30 scholarships, a two-year ban on participating in a bowl game, four years of probation, and the forfeiture of 14 games they had won from December 2004 through the rest of the 2005 season.

The NCAA investigation determined that while Reggie Bush was playing for USC, he allegedly accepted gifts, ranging from a rent-free home for his family to a car, from two sports marketers. The NCAA does not have the power to sanction Bush as a former player, although he did return his 2005 Heisman Trophy, without ever admitting wrongdoing.

The scandal came to light when the two sports marketers sued Bush for the return of $300,000 in gifts and cash they gave Bush during his college career when they were attempting to sign him. Bush signed with a different agent when he went pro in the 2006 draft.

The issue of sports agents playing college football players is not unique to USC. Sports agent John Luchs told Sports Illustrated that between 1990 and 1996, he paid 30 college players. Luchs also named names after some of the players he allegedly paid, most notably Ryan Leaf, declined to sign with him when they went pro.

The NCAA is in a difficult position when it comes to sports agents paying players. Since the NCAA does not have “the same legal authority as the court system,” they can’t sanction individuals, like sports agents or former student athletes, who do not fall under the NCAA’s authority. (The NFL, through the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), does certify and regulate sports agents who work with NFL players.)

But many have charged that the sanctions in USC’s case are unfair, as the players and coaches hit hardest by the sanctions weren’t at USC when Bush was playing and haven’t done anything wrong themselves. So have the sanctions had a deterrent effect?

In November, Dillon Baxter, a freshman tailback at USC was suspended for a game after taking a golf cart ride with an NFLPA-certified agent. USC reported the infraction to the NCAA itself. Baxter was allowed to return to play after paying for the value of the golf cart ride. The NCAA rules are clear that student athletes cannot accept transportation or other benefits from agents.

Some sports agents have proposed that the solution is to loosen the NCAA rules governing student athlete interaction with agents. The NCAA has convened a working group of NCAA, NFL, and NFLPA officials to consider overhauling the NCAA rules on agents. One promising item on the table is NFLPA fines on players for college infractions.

While no overhaul of the NCAA agent rules will lead to student athletes being able to accept benefits from agents, the NCAA does need to take a long look at the way that sanctions for infractions are handed out. Punishing student athletes and coaches who did not participate in any wrongdoing years after the infractions occurred seems like imperfect justice. The deterrent effect of sanctions does seem to be changing the culture at USC, but issues of the fairness and uniform applicability of the sanctions process remain.