Why You Can’t Just Fine NCAA Rule Breakers

Whenever news comes down like today’s announcement by the NCAA of sanctions against Ohio State stemming from Tatgate, a reasonable and well-intentioned segment of college sports fans and pundits inevitably raise the idea of using monetary fines to punish scofflaws.

The suggestion makes sense on its face. What better deterrent against cheating than hitting schools in the pocketbook? Plus, a fine doesn’t directly harm the current athletes, who didn’t break the rules, in the same ways that losing scholarships and bowl bans do.

It sounds good in theory, but such a system of enforcement would be a nightmare in practice.

First, there’s the matter of figuring how much violations should cost the penalized parties. Let’s say, for instance, that the NCAA set standard fines for violations – lack of institutional control costs $100,000, academic fraud costs $75,000 and so on. How do you set the right price on a violation so that it equitably penalizes schools with different resources? Given the size of their war chests, a dollar at Florida means less to the athletic department than a dollar at Nevada.

An effective fine for a wealthy school could cripple a small institution. Conversely, what amounts to a decent chunk of change at a WAC school might not even make a dent in the petty cash box at a Big Ten powerhouse.

Alternatively, the NCAA could base its fines on the schools’ individual ability to pay. That doesn’t address the issue of determining what a school could reasonably be expected to pay. Is the NCAA going to hire forensic accountants to pour over schools’ books in hopes of figuring out how much they should owe?

Second, much like businesses spend additional resources to mitigate mounting risks, fines would have an artificial inflationary effect on spending for compliance in areas where more resources probably aren’t necessary. In the case of non-revenue programs, the increased compliance costs coupled with the risk of fines for violations could make sports like field hockey cost-prohibitive. (Imagine how much Boise State’s women’s tennis team would have cost the school recently.)

Although you could argue that the number of violations in sports such as badminton and cross-country pale in comparison to those of moneymakers, all it would take is one costly scandal to convince administrators around the country to begin shuttering non-revenue programs.

Finally, from a practical standpoint, fines are a much tougher sell to a key group of stakeholders: politicians. Good luck convincing them to allow state institutions to take on that kind of financial exposure, especially when schools have little ability to police the actions of boosters and agents .

Yes, it sucks when players have to pay for the sins of predecessors who ran afoul of the NCAA. Unfortunately, scholarships and postseason bans are the only universal currency when it comes to the NCAA enforcing its rules.