Is NCAA selective enforcement real?
Public perception says yes, but take a closer look at history -- both long ago and recent
The quote is more than 20 years old but remains a classic in the annals of American sport:
"The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it's going to give Cleveland State two more years' probation."
The speaker was then-UNLV coach and scofflaw Jerry Tarkanian, who was on NCAA Enforcement speed dial at the time. The implication was that the rules cops take it easy on the glam programs of college sports and save the harsh justice for the rank and file.
That quote resonated with cynics convinced that the NCAA allowed the pressures of profitability and prestige to affect its system of justice. It resonated with all the fans who never thought the hammer fell hard enough to cripple their rivals (unless your rival was SMU). And it was funny.
Too bad it isn't true.
It isn't true right now, during a very busy NCAA enforcement and infractions cycle. Not with the heavily anticipated USC verdict set to be handed down Friday. And not with the news of last week: allegations of eight major rules violations levied at Connecticut basketball, plus the self-imposed Michigan football penalties in advance of a hearing before the Committee on Infractions in August. Not to mention the NCAA's current interest in the basketball programs at Oklahoma and Kentucky.
But the record also shows that it wasn't true in Tark's day, either. It's never been true.
The NCAA is a hugely flawed governing body; it would take from now until next year's Final Four to discuss all its shortcomings. But overt kowtowing to elite athletic schools is not among its problems.
Examine the NCAA's track record and you'll see that selective enforcement is every bit as real as the Loch Ness Monster or Heidi Montag's chest. It's mythology. Or, in the words of former NCAA Committee on Infractions member Tom Yeager, "it's baloney."
Yeager was chairman of the committee for three years and a committee member for nine. From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, the longtime commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association sat in on more than 100 major infractions cases. That includes every powder-keg case that came across the desk during that time: Albert Means and Alabama; the Michigan Fab Five case; the appalling Baylor murder cover-up; etc.
So ask a guy who's been there what he thinks of Tark's quote, and the popular sentiment behind it.
"As a former committee member, you take great offense to it," Yeager said. "The fact of the matter is, there are very volatile feelings involved with the high-profile powers -- from fans and non-fans.
"The non-fans always believe the offender got off scot-free. The fans always think they got the book thrown at them and point at someone else they think got off scot-free."
Here are the facts: The power programs in football and men's basketball wind up in front of the Committee on Infractions quite often. More so, in many cases, than their peers.
Which Big 12 men's basketball program has the most major infractions cases in league history? Kansas, with five.
Which Pac-10 men's basketball program has the most major infractions cases in league history? UCLA, with three.
Which Southeastern Conference men's basketball program is tied for the most major infractions cases in league history? Kentucky, with three.
In football, Oklahoma has had a whopping six major infractions cases, with at least one decided in five of the last six decades. USC is close to the completion of its sixth. Alabama has had four.
Fact is, the programs with all the perceived advantages also are under the most pressure to win from their demanding fan bases. And with those pressures come the temptations to cut corners -- and the heightened risk of being caught.
But fans are always looking for agendas to justify NCAA decisions that don't fit their own biases. It's easier to ascribe a phantom motive than to simply accept that this is the way a learned group of Committee on Infractions members sees each particular case.
"You're talking about retired judges and deans of law schools," Yeager said of the committee makeup. "They're volunteering their time to sit in a room all weekend in Indianapolis and make the best judgment they can make.
"There's so much scrutiny of the cases. These folks aren't putting their names and reputations on anything unless they think they can support it and stand by it. They aren't going to just willy-nilly come to conclusions."
If there is one thing the Infractions Committee has trended toward in recent years, it's fewer postseason bans. From that standpoint, this is a kinder, gentler era. That's probably due to the increased revenue derived from postseason play, and the fact that it's usually shared among conference members -- if you penalize one school, you penalize the entire league. (That's also part of the thinking behind the disappearance of television bans.)
But those changes in direction have not been accompanied by a change in the type of schools being penalized. It happens to programs great and small, rich and poor, powerful and obscure.
I know this: If the NCAA were truly in the business of selective enforcement, the all-time cheaters docket would show a lot more of Cleveland State (just one major infractions case in any sport) and a lot less of Kentucky (six cases in all sports).
No matter what Jerry Tarkanian says.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.