When bad things happen in athletic departments, the natural inclination is that the NCAA will step in. The NCAA legislates standards for athletic departments and regulates compliance with those standards. When anything goes wrong, either in athletic facilities or with the people involved in college athletics, the first look is often to Indianapolis for the NCAA’s response.
That instinct can be wrong in some cases. The NCAA is an organization based on athletics and education. What the NCAA can do is thus limited. The NCAA can only enforce the bylaws that its members make. As a private organization rather than part of the government, the NCAA’s powers are also limited. And there is the issue of what rules are appropriate for the NCAA to be overseeing.
Sometimes real crimes intersect with NCAA rules. The ability of the NCAA to punish an athletic department for criminal activity that occurs within the athletic department is tied directly to whether NCAA bylaws were violated as part of the crime. But there is a role for the NCAA to have consequences for criminal activity that occurs within an athletic department, and two changes in particular would provide the organization with the necessary tools.
NCAA as Accomplice
Very generally, the membership could make it an NCAA violation for the people NCAA rules cover (athletic department and university employees, student-athletes, boosters, etc.) to use college athletics in the commission of a crime. A simplistic example would be a coach who goes on recruiting trips abroad to bring drugs into the country. The recruiting trips might be permissible, but the activity surrounding the trips is illegal.
The NCAA would need to piggy back on the criminal investigation. But the facts that are proven with the power and processes of a government investigation might show that college athletics became an unwitting accomplice to the crime. At that point, the NCAA has an interest in punishing people and organizations who abuse college athletics without breaking any of the NCAA’s rules.
Clery Act Violations
Campus safety is regulated by the Clery Act, which is actually a section of Title IX. The Clery Act requires that colleges and universities who receive federal funding must compile and report accurate statistics regarding crimes that occur on- or near campus or involving students. The Clery Act also requires that institutions have policies for reporting and responding to accusations of crime on campus, with a special emphasis on sex crimes, violent crime, and hate crimes.
When the Department of Education finds a school guilty of a Clery Act violation, there are already significant penalties, including fines of up to $27,500 per violation and suspension from federal financial aid programs. A single incident can produce multiple violations, such as at Eastern Michigan University, where failure to warn students about a murder that had occurred on campus resulted in a record fine of $357,000.
Part of the NCAA’s mission is to provide for student-athlete welfare. Safety and security of student-athletes and staff is fundamental to that welfare. The membership could create a rule that requires institutions to report Clery Act violations involving the athletic department to the NCAA, which could then impose penalties. This would include failures of athletic department employees to report crimes, crimes against student-athletes, or crimes committed by student-athletes. It is not the criminal act that is being punished, rather it is the failure of the institution to respond to it and protect victims and other student-athletes.
As idyllic as college campuses may seem, they are part of the real world. Real world crimes happen on campuses and involve athletic departments. The NCAA has neither the expertise nor the authority to become another general police force. But when crimes are sufficiently intertwined with college athletics and the NCAA can use the results of investigations by the proper authorities, it makes sense to create consequences for actions that might not violate NCAA bylaws, but which make no one feel good about college athletics.
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.