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Friday, February 1, 2002
Updated: February 2, 10:55 AM ET
Bring back the Death Penalty

By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to ESPN.com

Here's the unmistakable message sent to America's power conference presidents and AD's, one tumbling down to the boosters, coaches and assistants carrying out the dirty deeds: The risk is worth the reward.

Buy players, fix grades and get those slush funds fat for national signing day. The NCAA will never drop that A-Bomb, never impose the death penalty again -- never, ever scare straight the NCAA's relentlessly renegade operations.

From the Pac-10 to the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten to the Southeastern Conference, membership forever has its privileges. As little as the NCAA wants to investigate your programs, it wants even less to dispense the most meaningful punishment of all.

"If the death penalty ever comes again, you can guarantee it will never be one of the BCS, cartel schools," one Division I athletic director said Friday. "They'll give it to someone in the WAC, or the Mountain West maybe, but those power commissioners will never let it happen to one of their schools."

"If repeat offenders like Alabama and Minnesota don't get it, where these unbelievable violations are a pattern for years and years, who's going to get it?"

Chances are, it'll be some poor, foolish school that isn't counted upon to contribute it's millions to the money making machine. When the NCAA Infractions Committee released its sentence of scholarship cuts and bowl bans for University of Alabama football on Friday, its chairman Thomas Yeager said: "They were absolutely staring down the barrel of a gun," insisting his committee strongly considered the death penalty.

These violations were the worst his panel had ever heard, which is interesting, because Thursday, the committee released its report on Kentucky's football scandal and -- surprise, surprise -- those were among the worst the panel had heard for years.

All the NCAA committee confirmed is that Alabama boosters paid a Memphis high school coach $115,000 to steer an defensive lineman to Tuscaloosa. All they confirmed is Kentucky paid $1,400 to another high school coach in Memphis, presumably just to recruit his kids.

Good lord, $115,000 for an defensive lineman? Are you kidding? It leaves you wondering what quarterbacks and running backs cost in the SEC. And if a Kentucky coach allegedly could gather these funds just to soften up a high school coach, what price were they paying to actually get kids?

For Kentucky's athletic department, this is the sixth major probation sentence in the sixth consecutive decade. For Alabama football, this is third hearing before the infractions committee in six years -- and the second time they were found guilty of major infractions. Those payments were just the sexiest in a long list of violations. Ultimately, this is the price of business in the SEC, where big-time cheating for big-time sports is all but written into the school charters.

Since 1990, eight SEC football programs have been punished for major violations. Just understand: They had to be so blatantly cheating for the NCAA to bother investigating them. Maybe the major conferences will toss out a Mississippi State or a Texas Tech, because they don't want the true sources of this billion dollar industry to be treated too harshly. This has been true for decades, and it never changes.

On a smaller scale, a college administrator tells of life on an infractions committee for a so-called non-revenue NCAA sport. The committee crushed a mid-level Division I school for endless violations, with the NCAA providing them tremendous muscle and latitude to prove the case. The next year, this administrator's committee came across far worse and more far-reaching violations at a university in a major conference. Same sport. Yet, that league's commissioner made calls, railroaded the investigation and essentially made the scandal go away. The committee wanted to pursue the case with the same vigor as it had the smaller school, but it just wasn't allowed.

When it comes to letting Alabama slide, the blame doesn't belong with Yeager and his infractions committee. Do you think the commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association and his committee members have the power to close the doors on Alabama football? Come on.

Whatever the NCAA tells you, it's clear these committees are powerless to deliver the death penalty. And why, really, should the likes of Yeager, considered a competent, ethical straight-shooter, be thrust into the role of judge and jury? In the end, it would be absolute career suicide for him to shut down an SEC football program. Or a Big Ten basketball school like Minnesota. Think he'd ever be considered for a commissioner's job in an elite conference? What about his committee members?

These deals are cut in the back rooms, with people far more powerful and influential than them.

If the NCAA actually wanted to elilminate the appearance of impropriety, these infractions committees would be cast as independent arbiters. These committee chairman wouldn't be old-boy AD's whom the power commissioners and AD's can schmooze. Why not try a retired judge? A military officer?

When the fat-cat presidents get together for the fancy golf outings, where they promise radical changes to clean up college sports, they can start here. Maybe the presidents can hire more investigators working out of Indianapolis, eliminating a few private jets and luxurious hotel suites to pay for them.

The NCAA shouldn't just start shutting down programs left and right. Not at all. Everyone understands that the 1987 death penalty destroyed SMU football forever. They never recovered, even once they started the sport again. Know what? They deserved it. The mere threat of the death penalty isn't going to scare a coaching staff. Come scandal, they'll get fired and blackballed, anyway. These problems don't start with coaches, they just get flushed out with them, washed away.

No, these are cases of systematic cheating, starting high, where presidents and trustees and boosters create the atmosphere and make the hires that enable an environment where everything from $115,000 payments for lineman to widespread academic fraud can take hold.

Ultimately, the NCAA can't legislate morality, but they can do something else: They can make people think twice. They can make them vigilant. They can deliver these infraction committees the true power: Not to just look down the barrel of guns at those untouchable cartel schools, but to pull the trigger.

When there's no choice left, shut them down.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (Northern N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.