As the pace of NCAA violations picks up, so has the quality of play in college athletics. Never before has Division I athletics assembled such a collection of talent. Neither trend shows any signs of slowing down any time soon. So the question arises: do you need to cheat to win?
The perception depends on who you ask. When ESPN’s Dana O’Neil surveyed 20 Division I men’s basketball head coaches (sub. req’d) last year, the consensus a definite maybe, with most coaches having little trust in their peers, but most also believing that the vast majority of programs were not committing major violations. That uncertain answer is itself cause for concern.
The trouble with the NCAA’s technical and intricate rule book is that you also lose some of the correlation between cheating and competitive success. If a coach makes a hundred or so impermissible phone calls to a couple dozen prospects over the course of two-four years, how much a competitive advantage was gained? Even more significant violations have questionable true competitive impact. USC argued, quite logically, that extra benefits received by a student-athlete after enrollment do not lead to a competitive advantage since they do not induce her to attend or stay at USC or make him play better.
We can start the long process of answering this question at the two extremes. Using the strictest definition of “cheating” we have, the vacating of a national title, the answer in the two revenue sports is promising. Not until USC’s 2004 BCS and AP national titles were vacated had a football or men’s basketball championship been vacated. By the NCAA’s own definition, all the other championships are clean.
On the other end of the spectrum, we can ask how many championships were won by programs that do not have even the hint of impropriety. Put another way, how many national championships in football and men’s basketball were won by programs with no major violations? As you might guess, the answer here is a bit less encouraging:
- Men’s Basketball: 8/73 titles – Georgetown, Holy Cross, Loyola (Chicago), Marquette, Oklahoma State (2), Stanford, Wyoming
- Football: 4/89 titles (Poll Era) – Penn State (2), BYU (2)
Much like the answer from the basketball coaches, the results are inconclusive. Two data points on the extreme ends of the scale tell you exactly what you’d expect them too. My hope is someone takes this and expands on it to start finding more precise measures of answering this question and incorporating other sports.
Does it really matter if it’s true that you don’t need to cheat to win? Maybe. Perception is more important than reality. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is partially based on what you believe rather than reality. If we can start providing some answers to this question, there will be better information when a coach decides whether or not to cheat.
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.