NCAA violations won’t stop until trustees act

Among the urgent topics discussed by more than 50 university presidents at the NCAA retreat last week in Indianapolis was what to do about the apparent epidemic of cheating in big-time college sports.

One sports writer opined that there had “never been a year with more lying, cheating, poor leadership and all-around misbehaving.”

Institutions including Auburn, Georgia Tech, Connecticut, LSU, Ohio State, Tennessee and USC, as well as world-class research universities Michigan and North Carolina, have been implicated in rules violations ranging from excessive practice time and plagiarism to the sale of memorabilia and outright payments to players.

Given the well-deserved academic reputations these universities have earned, one might ask, how could they have let this happen?

Cheating has been a part of big-time college sports for a long time. The Carnegie Commission’s exhaustive 1929 report on college sports documented numerous violations of recruiting rules. In the 1980s, players at Southern Methodist University received regular cash payments. A study published in 1991 found that 35 percent of more than a thousand football players surveyed had taken illegal payments while they were in college.

Last October, Sports Illustrated published an account by a retired sports agent who said he had paid 30 different college football players over his two-decade career.

And there’s the well-publicized sagas of two recent Heisman Trophy winners. One received free hotel stays and housing for his family when he played for USC. The father of the other player reportedly demanded a six-figure payment to get his son to sign with one college team.

In some cases of rule-breaking, the culprits are on a university’s payroll.

Other cases involve sports agents, family members or athletic boosters, but universities are penalized if they are found to have been looking the other way.

None of the universities penalized by NCAA condones rule-breaking. Yet those very universities have created the incentives that make cheating so tempting.

It may sound like blaming the victim, but this is what I have concluded after spending several years studying the role of big-time college sports in America — the only country in the world, by the way, with universities that sponsor commercial sports. What distinguishes universities with big-time sports programs from those that don’t is that, in addition to their dedication to teaching, research and service, they care deeply about having competitive teams, especially in football and basketball.

Big-time sports can benefit the academic mission of the universities that sponsor it, including exposure that pays off in bigger applicant pools and stronger support from donors and legislators. But for these universities, sports success is not just a means to an end. It is an end in itself.

Trustees don’t expect championship teams every year, but they do care deeply about being competitive. They certainly don’t want their team to be the conference doormat.

Consider what this means for how an athletic department operates. Coaches are not asked simply to have good teams. They must win games. In the winner-take-all setting that is basic to athletic competition, this makes it imperative to recruit star athletes, spend money on coaches and facilities, and pursue every conceivable source of income.

Signing those star recruits means pushing the envelope at every edge. For some coaches and athletic directors, it will inevitably mean stepping over the line, which can be facilitated by boosters willing to provide cash, cars or other inducements. And, because it’s essential to keep these stars academically eligible once they enroll, there is every incentive to provide overworked and often under-prepared athletes all the tutoring possible.

Rule-breaking also carries reputational risks. Although fans often seem unperturbed by penalties, universities with sparkling academic reputations have a great deal to lose when NCAA investigators come calling, which explains why these universities seldom get in trouble and why there is so much hand-wringing when they do.

Rule-breaking in college sports is often viewed strictly in moral terms, as a reflection of defective character. But it would be a mistake to ignore the powerful influence of the universities themselves and the incentives they create by attaching such importance to athletic success.

Cheating won’t be solved just by tighter rules and better enforcement. A century of big-time college sports tells us that much.

Real change won’t happen until university trustees, not just presidents, show they value the academic mission more than winning games.

Charles Clotfelter is a professor of public policy, economics and law at Duke University. He is the author of “Big-Time Sports in American Universities.