“That’s how you do it” seems to be the general reaction to the NFL’s decision to suspend New Orleans Saints’ head coach Sean Payton for a year and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely following the league’s findings that players and coaches had engaged in a scheme to pay bounties for hard hits and injuries to opponents over a three year period. The harsh punishment and swift decisions have been contrasted with a major infractions investigation in the NCAA, which takes longer and has lead to penalties decried as ineffective or merely slaps on the wrist.
Ignore for a second the question of whether it would be better for the NCAA to replace its layers of governance with a single, all-powerful commissioner who hands out penalties which can only be appealed to that same all-powerful commissioner and that the NFL’s investigation started back in 2010. What would happen if a college football team was found to be engaging in a similar bounty scheme? What are the possible violations and what might the penalties be?
For our purposes here, we’ll assume the same facts were found by the Committee on Infractions as the NFL found, which include:
- Players and coaches pooled money that was paid out as bounties.
- The head coach knew about and failed to stop the plan.
- The general manager knew about and failed to stop the plan after being instructed by the owner.
- Involved individuals lied to investigators.
In college, the general manager would be replaced with the athletic director, and the owner would be roughly equivalent to the university president.
Gambling (Bylaw 10.3)
The actual bounty program itself could be placed in the catch-all category of unethical conduct, but it is normally better to find a violation of a more specific bylaw. The NCAA defines gambling as risking something of value to win something of value. The athletes in this case risked something (money contributed to the pool) to win something (money awarded from the pool). The way the bounty scheme was set up is really no different than say golfers gambling on practice rounds.
Extra Benefits (Bylaw 18.104.22.168)
In addition to the athletes contributing money to the pool, a coach was putting in funds as well. That portion of the bounty pool would be considered an extra benefit to the athletes. It’s hard to say what the amount of extra benefits would be since we do not know how much each individual contributed. Payouts ranged from $1000 to over $4000, but would likely be less in college, probably between $200 and $500. On the other hand, the share of the bounty pool from coaches would likely be larger in college than in the NFL. Given a similar number of athletes (22–27) over a similar time frame (3 years), a reasonable estimate might be that a few athletes received extra benefits in the thousands of dollars while the majority would be in the hundreds of dollars but less than a grand. The total extra benefits might be in the $10–15,000 range.
Unethical Conduct (Bylaw 10.1)
Aside from the possibility that organizing the bounty pool would be considered an ethical conduct violation, individuals (including athletes and coaches) lied to investigators. In total, the following sections of the unethical conduct bylaw could apply:
- (a) Refusal to furnish information relevant to an investigation of a possible violation of an NCAA regulation when requested to do so by the NCAA or the individual’s institution.
- (b) Knowing involvement in offering or providing a prospective or an enrolled student-athlete an improper inducement or extra benefit or improper financial aid.
- (d) Knowingly furnishing or knowingly influencing others to furnish the NCAA or the individuals’s institution false or misleading information concerning an individual’s involvement in or knowledge of matters relevant to a possible violation of an NCAA regulation.
Failure to Promote an Atmosphere of Compliance (Bylaw 22.214.171.124)
At the point where the head coach learned about the violation, he would have had an obligation under NCAA rules to stop it from occurring and ensure it was reported at dealt with. But as the NFL found:
Although [the head coach] was not a direct participant in the funding or administration of the program, he was aware of the allegations, did not make any detailed inquiry or otherwise seek to learn the facts, and failed to stop the bounty program. He never instructed his assistant coaches or players that a bounty program was improper and could not continue.
That would certainly violate both the responsibility to promote an atmosphere of compliance and the responsibility of a head coach to monitor his program and the people who report to him.
Lack of Institutional Control (Constitution 2.1.1)
Not only did the head coach fail to investigate or stop the bounty program but imagine if this appeared in an infractions report:
When informed earlier this year of the new information, [the university president] advised the [enforcement] staff that he had directed his [athletic director] to ensure that any bounty program be discontinued immediately. The evidence showed that [the athletic director] did not carry out [the president’s] directions. Similarly, when the initial allegations were discussed with [the athletic director] in 2010, he denied any knowledge of a bounty program and pledged that he would ensure that no such program was in place. There is no evidence that [the athletic director] took any effective action to stop these practices.
The lack of any action at all, even in response to an order from the institutional CEO on a matter as serious as athlete safety would go beyond a failure to monitor. It would be evidence of a lack of any system to control the athletics department, hence a lack of institutional control.
Judging penalties is always difficult, but we can get in the ballpark at least. The biggest variable is to what degree the fact that the violations deal with athlete safety is treated as an aggravating factor. The case that comes the closest is the Baylor case, which would make a bounty scheme one of the worst violations with some of the most severe penalties in NCAA history. Even without that consideration, this is still one of the most serious cases ever, involving gambling, the possibility of significant extra benefits, and a lack of institutional control. Let’s look at the penalties for the athletes, the coaches and administrators, and the institution.
Sports wagering is one of the few bylaws that has a penalty written into the manual:
A student-athlete who participates in activities designed to influence the outcome of any intercollegiate contest or in an effort to affect win-loss margins (“point shaving”) or who participates in any sports wagering activity involving the student-athlete’s institution shall permanently lose all remaining regular-season and postseason eligibility in all sports. (emphasis added)
Just for being involved in sports wagering at all, student-athletes are subject to a one-year suspension and the loss of one season of competition in all sports. Given that a bounty system goes beyond gambling, it would be hard for the institution to make an argument for mitigating these penalties. Add in the fact that there could be repayment and further suspensions for the extra benefit violations, plus penalties for lying to the NCAA. There would likely be a number of student-athletes who are declared permanently ineligible and the rest would be facing suspensions that may start at a year.
Coaches and Administrators
There would likely be two show-cause orders handed down, with the possibility of a third. As important as the length of a show-cause order is, how the individual’s athletic duties are limited are even more important. Guessing there is even more difficult because the Committee on Infractions has only recently begun spelling these conditions out in the public report.
The coach(es) who ran the bounty pool would be facing charges of providing extra benefits to student-athletes and unethical conduct. They would receive the most significant and lengthy penalties. Show-cause orders longer than three years are fairly uncommon, occurring in only a few cases in the last decade. In this case though, that might be the floor for coaches directly involved in the bounty scheme. Three to five years sounds about right. The coaches would likely be prohibited from any recruiting activities during that period, but the big question would be if or for how long they would be prohibited from all coaching activities, which would turn the show-cause into an extended suspension.
The head coach would likely also receive a show-cause order for the failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance and any unethical conduct violations he was involved with. Former Ohio State University head coach Jim Tressel’s show-cause order seems to offer the best model. It would likely be around 3 years long, and would include a suspension from gameday coaching activities, with six games probably the starting point.
Finally, there might be a show-cause order for the athletic director who failed to take action after being told to by the university president. Show-causes orders for administrators are even rarer. One of the very few in recent history was in Florida State University’s recent major infractions case where a learning specialist received a four year-long show-cause order during which she was prevented from having any contact with student-athletes. A show-cause order for an athletic director might include limiting him or her to no athletic duties or from having direct supervision of sports programs.
Penalties for the institution would start with a lengthy probation, on the order of four or five years. This could be increased even more if the institution was found to not have cooperated with the investigation, beyond just the unethical conduct by individuals.
The extra benefits violation would result in the loss of scholarships. How many is the big question. The total dollar amount would be significant, but some of the individual amounts received by student-athletes would be relatively small. But when combined with the fact that the benefits were provided in a gambling ring that threatened student-athlete safety, the Committee on Infractions will not be inclined to offer relief. Once the athletes started receiving extra benefits, they would have been ineligible for competition, so records will be vacated as well.
The combination of gambling, safety, extra benefits, and a lack of institutional control on the institution’s part would mean a postseason ban for multiple years is possible, if not likely. Any money gained from postseason appearances with the ineligible student-athletes would need to be returned, and this might be a case where the NCAA would impose a financial penalty as they did in the recent Georgia Tech case.
In the end, the sanctions on the institution would be similar to those imposed on the University of Southern California. Significant scholarship loses, a multi-year postseason ban, a lengthy probation, and financial penalties. This all assumes that the case is decided under the current major infractions penalty system, not the new penalty matrix where this case would likely fall into the highest category of penalties given the number of aggravating factors.
At least within the bounds of the collective bargaining agreement. ↩