Consistency. It’s the current buzzword regarding how the NCAA regulates college athletics. All anyone wants is consistency in the NCAA’s decisions.
Let’s ignore for a moment that consistency can easily be used as a substitute for “do what I want you to do.” Someone takes two decisions with different outcomes, and demands consistency, but often suggesting one is right and the other is incorrect. If consistency was most important, either decision could be “correct” as long as both are the same.
But consistency can mean many things. A simple demand of the NCAA to be more consistent is no different then simply demanding that the NCAA “do better” with no other direction. So let’s refine our demands for consistency.
The most important consistency is consistency with the rules
Decisions should be based on rules and processes. If your options are to have two similar decisions or have two decisions that are based in the rules, the latter is always better. That means technicalities happen. That means that different rules produce different outcomes even from seemingly (but not quite) similar situations.
Take the recently announced Ohio State suspensions, derided as inconsistent. Say what you will about the decision, but the NCAA followed its own rules:
- The student-athletes were given withholding conditions in line with the reinstatement guidelines;
- Some student-athletes were given additional withholdings based on a published bylaw;
- And the student-athletes met the requirements in a policies and procedures manual to have the withholdings delayed.
If you disagree with the process that produced that decision, that’s fair. But that doesn’t mean the process should be abandoned in a given case to reach the desired result.
The second most important consistency is consistency across facts
Assuming the processes are followed, we would like to know that similar situations produce similar results. The exact same situation should always produce the exact same result under the rule above. But the more similar two sets of facts are, the more similar the decisions should be.
Consider Enes Kanter and Josh Selby. The cases are similar because the two took impermissible benefits or compensation prior to enrolling in college. But there’s also two differences in the cases:
- The source of the benefit; and
- The amount of the benefit.
If you agree that the NCAA should follow their own rules, those rules state that those two differences matter. We can debate how much they should matter, if at all. But because the facts are different in some material way (according to the current rules), different decisions in the two cases would not necessarily be inconsistent.
The third most important consistency is consistency with morality
Which is worse behavior? A father attempting but failing to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars for his son to attend a specific school? Or a coach mistakenly providing money to someone with influence over a prospect? The NCAA regulations said the latter. Public opinion appears to be the former.
Prior to this year, that would have been a great theoretical debate. Now it’s two actual decisions that lead (or didn’t) to actual penalties.
Here’s where the greatest criticism of the NCAA regulations can be levied. Behavior that appears in some cases to not be “as bad” leads to more penalties than behavior that appears to be “worse”.
I’m not confirming some big conspiracy theory though. That’s a common result of trying to corral as many consituencies over as many years as the NCAA regulations have been growing. As someone who participates in the NCAA’s legislative process, I’m as frustrated as anyone else when we deregulate part of one area but not the entire concept. Or increase regulation in one area but deregulate in what appears to be a similar area.
But the NCAA membership cannot fix these problems by adopting this bylaw:
Bylaw 4.01.1.1 – No Conspiracies
The Association shall not operate in a manner that appears to be similar to a cartel, cabal, or other shadowy organization (Adopted: 12/30/10)
The idea of a sort of constitutional convention has merit. It would be a lot more productive but a lot less exciting than an inquisition.
Consistency doesn’t equal perfection
Any sort of system of regulation that seeks to produce decisions that are consistent with its rules and based on facts is going to get it wrong sometimes. If the attitude is “student-athlete friendly,” some wrongdoers are going to get off easy. If the goal is to clean up a sport or area of the rules, someone who just made a mistake might get caught on a technicality.
Whether the NCAA membership goes to one extreme or the other or somewhere in the middle, there’s a trade-off. We can’t have blanket rules without the blanket covering people it shouldn’t. And we can’t have a million exceptions without creating loopholes for ne’er-do-wells.
The charge is that far from being perfect, the NCAA is more often than not wrong. This year at least, that judgment is being made based on comparing the same set of five or six cases over and over against each other. But since August 1, 2010, the NCAA has issued over 1500 decisions in secondary violation and/or student-athlete reinstatement cases.
It’s a combination of small sample size and what’s available to be compared. The cases that get talked about are unusual or controversial decisions in two of the NCAA’s 30+ sports. Assuming the other 1490-odd cases are “right,” the attention and the difficulties are all focused on the same place: at the margins. This isn’t a fundamental failure of the NCAA model. It’s a debate about how to handle the most difficult and exceptional cases.
Say what you mean
The truest thing to say about consistency in the NCAA is that there’s more consistency in the decisions than people think and less consistency in the rules than anyone would say is ideal. But as long as the criticism is vague demands for “consistency” or “fairness”, it’s hard for any change to occur.
If your demand is for more consistency, narrow it down. Does the NCAA not follow its own rules? Are the rules focused on the wrong priorities? Is the enforcement/reinstatement process not good enough at determining relevant facts? Those are all things that can be improved, measures that can be used to determine success or failure. A simple demand for “consistency” isn’t likely to lead to anything.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.