Death penalty (NCAA)
The death penalty is the popular term for the National Collegiate Athletic Association's power to ban a school from competing in a sport for at least one year. It is the harshest penalty that an NCAA member school can receive.
It has been implemented only five times:
- The University of Kentucky basketball program for the 1952–53 season.
- The basketball program at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) for the 1973–74 and 1974–75 seasons.
- The Southern Methodist University football program for the 1987 season.
- The Division II men's soccer program at Morehouse College for the 2004 and 2005 seasons.
- The Division III men's tennis program at MacMurray College for the 2005–06 and 2006–07 seasons.
In the 1980s, two other Division I men's basketball programs, at the University of San Francisco (1982) and Tulane University (1985), self-imposed "death penalties" after revelations of major NCAA violations. These "death penalties" lasted three and four seasons, respectively. The next self-imposed "death penalty" by a Division I school took place in 2015, when Western Kentucky University (WKU) shut down its men's and women's swimming and diving teams after an investigation into alleged hazing.
- 1 Current criteria
- 2 University of Kentucky basketball, 1952
- 3 University of Southwestern Louisiana basketball, 1973
- 4 Southern Methodist University football, 1986
- 5 Other Division I schools with serious infractions
- 6 NCAA schools outside of Division I
- 7 Self-imposed "death penalties"
- 8 References
The NCAA has always had the power to ban an institution from competing in a particular sport. However, in 1985, in response to rampant violations at several schools, the NCAA Council passed the "repeat violator" rule. The rule stipulates that if a second major violation occurs at any institution within five years of being on probation in the same sport or another sport, that institution can be barred from competing in the sport involved in the second violation for either one or two seasons. In cases of particularly egregious misconduct, a school can also be stripped of its right to vote at NCAA conventions for four years. The severity of the penalty led the media to dub it "the death penalty," and the nickname has persisted to this day. However, if the NCAA finds a school has engaged in a "pattern of willful violations," it can look back to when the violations first occurred, even if they are outside the five-year window. It also still has the power to ban a school from competing in a sport without any preliminaries in cases of particularly egregious violations. However, the "repeat violator" rule gave the Infractions Committees of the various NCAA divisions specific instances where they must either bar a school from competing or explain why they did not.
University of Kentucky basketball, 1952
On October 20, 1951, former Kentucky players Alex Groza, Ralph Beard, and Dale Barnstable were arrested for taking bribes from gamblers to shave points during the National Invitation Tournament game against the Loyola Ramblers in the 1948–49 season. This game occurred during the same year that Kentucky won their second straight NCAA title under Adolph Rupp. Rupp and the university were criticized by the presiding judge, Saul Streit, for creating an atmosphere for the violations to occur and for "failing in his duty to observe the amateur rules, to build character, and to protect the morals and health of his charges". Senior center Bill Spivey, a freshman on the 1948 unit, was charged with perjury due to discrepancies between his testimony and former teammates who claimed he was involved in the scheme as well. While he was acquitted, he was barred from ever playing for the Wildcats again.
Following the point shaving scandal, the NCAA and Southeastern Conference opened an investigation into the Kentucky program. School officials hoped that barring Spivey from ever suiting up again would work in their favor. It was to no avail. In August 1952, the SEC barred Kentucky from conference play for the 1952-53 season. In October, in its first-ever formal enforcement action, the NCAA found that 10 Kentucky basketball players received impermissible financial aid. It also found that Rupp and his staff knew the players were ineligible and allowed them to play anyway. As punishment, the NCAA barred Kentucky's entire athletic program from postseason play for the 1952-53 academic year, and directed its basketball-playing members to boycott the Wildcats during the 1952-53 season. The latter penalty was invoked through provisions in the NCAA Constitution that required members to compete against only those schools that were compliant with NCAA rules. This effectively canceled the Wildcats' 1952-53 season, and is thus reckoned as the first "death penalty."
University of Southwestern Louisiana basketball, 1973
Southwestern Louisiana was found guilty of more than 125 violations in August 1973. Most of them involved small cash payments to players, letting players borrow coaches' and boosters' cars, letting players use university credit cards to buy gas and buying clothes and other objects for players. However, the most severe violations involved massive academic fraud. In the most egregious case, an assistant coach altered a recruit's high school transcript and forged the principal's signature. Several boosters arranged for surrogates to take college entrance exams for prospective recruits. The NCAA responded by scrubbing the Ragin' Cajuns' 1972 and 1973 NCAA Tournament appearances from the books and canceling the 1973-74 and 1974-75 seasons. To date, this is the only multi-season cancellation ever handed down to a Division I member. The NCAA Council found the violations to be so egregious that it recommended throwing Southwestern Louisiana out of the NCAA altogether, but the convention opted to strip the school of voting privileges until 1977.
Southern Methodist University football, 1986
The SMU case was the first modern "death penalty" - that is, the first one utilized under the "repeat violator" rule. It is the only modern death penalty handed down to a Division I school.
SMU football had already been placed on three years' probation in 1985 for recruiting violations. At the time, it had been on probation seven times (including five times since 1974), more than any other school in Division I-A.
However, in 1986, SMU faced allegations by two whistleblowing players, Sean Stopperich and David Stanley, that players were still being paid. An investigation found that 21 players received approximately $61,000 in cash payments, with the assistance of athletic department staff members, from a slush fund provided by a booster. Payments ranged from $50 to $725 per month, and started only a month after SMU went on its original probation (though it later emerged that a slush fund had been maintained in one form or another since the mid-1970s). Also, SMU officials lied to NCAA officials about when the payments stopped.
While the school had assured the NCAA that players were no longer being paid, the school's board of governors, led by chairman Bill Clements, decided that the school had to honor previous commitments made to the players. However, under a secret plan adopted by the board, the school would phase out the slush once all players that were still being paid had graduated.
As a result:
- The 1987 season was canceled; only conditioning drills (without pads) were permitted until the spring of 1988.
- All home games in 1988 were canceled. The NCAA allowed SMU to play their seven regularly scheduled away games so that other institutions would not be financially affected and so that SMU could avoid uninsurable default liabilities to those schools if its failure to uphold the contractual obligation to appear for competition was not beyond the school's control. The university ultimately chose to cancel the away games as well, and to accept the uninsured "failure to appear" liability.
- The team's existing probation was extended to 1990, resulting in essentially two full years of lost appearance, broadcast media, and advertising sponsorship income. Its existing ban from bowl games and live television was extended to 1989.
- SMU lost 55 new scholarship positions over 4 years.
- The team was allowed to hire only five full-time assistant coaches instead of the typical nine.
- No off-campus recruiting was permitted until August 1988, and no paid visits could be made to campus by potential recruits until the start of the 1988–89 school year.
The infractions committee cited the need to "eliminate a program that was built on a legacy of wrongdoing, deceit and rule violations" as a factor in what is still the harshest penalty ever meted out to any major collegiate program. It also cited SMU's past history of violations and the "great competitive advantage" the Mustangs had gained as a result of cheating. However, it praised SMU for cooperating fully with the investigation, as well as its stated intent to run a clean program. Had SMU not fully cooperated, it would have had its football program shut down until 1989 and would have lost its right to vote at NCAA conventions until 1990.
All recruits and players were allowed to transfer without losing eligibility, and most did. On April 11, 1987, SMU announced its football team would stay shuttered for 1988 as well, citing the near-certainty that it would not have enough experienced players left to field a competitive team. Their concerns proved valid, as new coach Forrest Gregg was left with a severely undersized and underweight roster composed mostly of freshmen.
Before the "death penalty" was instituted, SMU was a storied program in college football, with a Heisman Trophy winner (Doak Walker in 1949), one national championship (from the Dickinson System in 1935) and 10 Southwest Conference titles. The Mustangs compiled a 52–19–1 record from 1980 until 1986, including an undefeated season in 1982 led by the Pony Express backfield of future Pro Football Hall of Fame member Eric Dickerson and Craig James. The only blemish on that team's record was a tie against Arkansas, which denied the Mustangs a shot at the national championship despite being the only undefeated team in the nation.
Afterwards, players were reluctant to attend a school with a history of such major recruiting violations. In addition, the loss of 55 scholarships meant that it would be 1992 before the Mustangs were able to field a team with a full complement of scholarship players; it would be another year before it fielded a team consisting entirely of players unaffected by the scandal.
Since 1989 SMU has defeated only 2 ranked teams, has had only 3 winning seasons, and is 64–158–3. The Mustangs did not return to a bowl game until 2009; they won the 2009 Hawaiʻi Bowl on December 24, 2009 over Nevada by a score of 45–10. The death penalty decimated the Southwest Conference's reputation and finances, contributing to the collapse of the entire conference in 1996 (which led to a major conference realignment). Additionally, according to Yahoo! Sports writer Dan Wetzel, school officials significantly increased admissions standards for all incoming athletes, effectively taking the Mustangs out of contention for the kinds of players they attracted in the 1980s.
Years later, members of the committee that imposed the "death penalty" said that they had never anticipated a situation where they would ever have to impose it, but their investigation at SMU revealed a program completely out of control. Still, the crippling effects the penalty had on SMU has reportedly made the NCAA reluctant to impose another one. Former University of Florida President John V. Lombardi, now president of the Louisiana State University System, said in 2002: "SMU taught the committee that the death penalty is too much like the nuclear bomb. It's like what happened after we dropped the (atom) bomb in World War II. The results were so catastrophic that now we'll do anything to avoid dropping another one.”
Despite the NCAA's apparent wariness about imposing a death penalty, it has indicated that the SMU case is its standard for imposing such an extreme sanction. For example, in its 2005 investigation of the Baylor University men's basketball team, the NCAA determined that the Bears had committed violations as egregious as those found at SMU 18 years earlier. However, it praised Baylor for taking swift corrective action once the violations came to light, including forcing out head coach Dave Bliss. According to the NCAA, this stood in marked contrast to SMU, where school officials knew violations had occurred and did nothing. The report asserted that
The violations in the present matter [Baylor] are as serious as those committed in the case referenced above [SMU]. However, in contrast to that case, once the violations finally came to light Baylor University took decisive and meaningful action to stop the violations and to punish itself and the involved individuals, including replacing the entire men's basketball coaching staff, implementing a postseason ban, forfeiting conference tournament revenue and reducing official paid visits, recruiting opportunities and scholarships....The university and several of the involved individuals exhibited genuine remorse and demonstrated total cooperation with the NCAA in developing the facts of this case.
Other Division I schools with serious infractions
Since imposing the "death penalty" against SMU, the NCAA has reportedly considered imposing the sanction at least three times on a Division I school—against Kentucky basketball in 1989, Penn State football in 2012, and Texas Southern Tigers athletics in 2012.
Kentucky basketball, 1989
In 1989, Kentucky basketball was found guilty of rampant recruiting and eligibility violations. The Wildcats were facing the possibility of a death penalty after being sanctioned in 1988 for failing to cooperate with an earlier investigation. In its final report, the NCAA said that Kentucky's violations were egregious enough to warrant a death penalty. However, the NCAA said it decided against imposing a death penalty after school president David Roselle took swift action to bring the basketball program under control once the violations came to light—including forcing the resignations of head coach Eddie Sutton and athletic director Cliff Hagan. In its final report, the infractions committee stated:
Because of the nature of the violations found in this case, the committee seriously considered whether the regular-season schedule for the men's basketball program should be curtailed in whole or in part for one or two seasons of competition. In the judgment of the committee, the nature of the violations found would justify such a penalty. However, this case also was evaluated in the light of the university's actions to bring itself into compliance. While breakdowns occurred in the institutional control exercised over the men's basketball program within the athletics department and in the men's basketball program itself, the university's president acted forcefully to uncover all relevant information bearing on these matters and to set a proper direction for the future of the university's athletics program. The committee has credited these actions, and so the penalties, although severe, do not include any limitation on regular-season competition.
Penn State football, 2012
In 2012, Penn State was disciplined with some of the harshest sanctions that have been imposed on an NCAA member school since the SMU case—including a four-year bowl ban for the football team—for school officials' failure to report former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky's numerous instances of molesting children. Hours after the sanctions were announced, school president Rodney Erickson said that had Penn State not agreed to a sweeping consent decree implementing the sanctions, it would have faced a multi-year suspension of the football program without any preliminaries. Erickson subsequently told ESPN's John Barr that Penn State was facing as long as a four-year ban from play. Erickson also told ESPN's Don Van Natta that he had been prompted to start negotiations after NCAA president Mark Emmert personally told him that a majority of the NCAA leadership wanted to shut the football program down for four years.
However, NCAA Executive Committee chairman and Oregon State president Ed Ray, whose committee was charged by Emmert with designing the sanctions, told ESPN's Adam Rittenberg that while there had been considerable discussion over whether to include a death penalty as one of the sanctions, "the overwhelming position of members of both the executive committee and the Division I board was against a suspension of play." Ray "categorically" denied that Penn State had been threatened with a death penalty had it not agreed to the sanctions, saying that including it as a backup in the event of such a denial was "never even a point of discussion within either the executive committee or the Division I board." Emmert himself told ESPN's Bob Ley that the death penalty was "unequivocally on the table" as a possible sanction. However, he said that the NCAA ultimately decided against imposing one due to Penn State's swift corrective action after the scandal broke in full—including the firing of head coach Joe Paterno and the forced resignation of president Graham Spanier—as well as its full cooperation with the NCAA. "Had Penn State not been as decisive as they were," Emmert said, "I don't know what the outcome would have been, but I suspect it would have been significantly worse." He also denied that the NCAA had threatened Penn State with a death penalty had it not signed the consent decree, saying that there had been "significant confusion" about those circumstances. He did, however, say that had Penn State not accepted the consent decree, the NCAA would have launched a full-blown infractions investigation that would have had "an unknown outcome." Earlier, Emmert told Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde that if Penn State had not agreed to the sanctions, the board would have taken action on its own, "probably with harsher penalties."
The consent decree stated that the death penalty was primarily reserved for repeat violators that had neither cooperated with the NCAA nor taken any corrective measures. It not only noted Penn State's swift corrective action, but also pointed out that the school had never been the subject of a major infractions case before.
Texas Southern athletics, 2012
In October 2012, the NCAA found Texas Southern University guilty of massive violations in 13 sports over a seven-year period from 2005 to 2012. The most serious violations occurred within the football and men's basketball programs, involving academic fraud, illicit benefits given to student athletes, lying on the part of coaches, and lying to the NCAA about self-imposed sanctions. The NCAA deemed TSU a "double repeat violator"; the Tigers had either been on probation or had violations occurring for all but six years since 1992. The NCAA seriously considered a death penalty due to the egregiousness of the violations, as well as TSU's failure to reform itself over the past two decades. However, according to Greg Sankey, chief operating officer of the SEC and a member of the infractions committee, it decided against doing so due to cooperation from President John Rudley and Athletic Director Charles McClelland, as well as the school's corrective measures—including firing football coach Johnnie Cole and forcing the resignation of men's basketball coach Tony Harvey. Instead, the NCAA banned TSU's men's basketball team from the 2013 postseason and banned TSU's football team from the 2013 and 2014 postseason. Earlier, TSU had vacated every game that Tiger teams had won from 2006 to 2010, and vacated all victories in football and women's soccer for the 2010-11 season.
NCAA schools outside of Division I
Morehouse College soccer, 2003
In 2000, Morehouse's part-time soccer coach, Augustine Konneh (who had lobbied to get soccer elevated to varsity status two years earlier) signed two Nigerian-born players to play for the Maroon Tigers even though they had played professionally for the Atlanta Ruckus of the A-League two years earlier. They also played a few games for Morehouse before they actually enrolled at the school. Despite obvious red flags in their applications—they would have been only grade-school age when they enrolled at the University of Liberia, and one of them couldn't provide a transcript of his collegiate coursework—Morehouse admitted them. Even though the school's athletic director received word that the two players might have been ineligible, they were allowed to play in 2001 as well. Although Konneh was replaced as coach in 2001, numerous other violations—including a player being allowed to compete without proper paperwork—led Morehouse to cancel the 2003 season. In November 2003, the NCAA barred Morehouse from fielding a soccer team again until 2006—in effect, extending the self-imposed cancellation for an additional two seasons. It was the first multi-year shutdown of an athletic program since the NCAA adopted the "repeat violator" rules. It also slapped Morehouse with five years' probation—the longest that can be imposed under the NCAA constitution, and tied for the longest probation ever. USA Today called it the harshest penalty ever handed down to a collegiate program. The Division II infractions committee came down particularly hard on Morehouse because of a lack of institutional control; for a time the athletic department did not know the soccer program even existed. While this was Morehouse's first major infractions case, the NCAA felt compelled to impose the death penalty because of what it called "a complete failure" to keep the program in compliance. Soccer at Morehouse has since reverted to intramural status; school officials had planned to shutter varsity soccer for an indefinite period even before the NCAA acted.
MacMurray College tennis, 2004
MacMurray's men's tennis team had its 2005–06 and 2006–07 seasons canceled after part-time coach Neal Hart and his father arranged to obtain $126,000 worth of grants for 10 players from foreign countries from 2000 to 2004. Division III schools are not allowed to offer scholarships. When athletic director Bob Gay learned about the violations in 2004, he forfeited the one match the team had played that year, canceled the rest of the 2004-05 season, and self-reported the matter to the NCAA. The Division III infractions committee said that while Hart's intentions were good, he had nonetheless committed blatant violations. The committee was also angered by Hart's statements at the hearing; he'd referred to several NCAA rules as "a joke" and described the grant program as a "scheme." Hart said years later that he'd opted not to deliver a written statement before the committee, and this led him to make poor choices of words. As with Morehouse two years earlier, while this was MacMurray's first major infractions case, the NCAA felt compelled to impose the "death penalty" because of the nature of the violations. In its final report, the NCAA cited the violation of basic Division III principles, the size of the grant fund, the "significant" competitive advantage gained through the grants (though MacMurray never won more than six matches in Hart's tenure) and what it described as Hart's "cavalier attitude" toward NCAA rules.
In addition to the two-year death penalty, MacMurray was also banned from postseason play in 2008 and 2009. However, the tennis program has never returned. Hart was also slapped with a four-year show-cause penalty, but this was overturned on appeal.
Self-imposed "death penalties"
University of San Francisco men's basketball, 1982
Until 1982, the University of San Francisco had one of the richest traditions and highest profile programs in Division I-A men's basketball, highlighted by fifteen of the first thirty West Coast Conference championships, and a sixty-game winning streak from 1954-56, which netted consecutive NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 behind all-time great Bill Russell. Although John Wooden and his UCLA Bruins had eclipsed San Francisco as the premier West Coast power, the Dons remained an elite program well into the early 1980s, boasting three national championships (in 1949, the NIT won by the Dons was still considered the more prestigious tournament), and had captured six consecutive conference titles from 1977-82. However, San Francisco's success on the court came at a price. The NCAA placed the Dons on probation two times in the late 1970s for booster/alumni interference with the program and recruiting improprieties by coaches. Each NCAA investigation eventually led to the dismissal of a San Francisco head coach, leading San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter Glenn Dickey to call the program "totally out of control."
In light of these and other revelations, school president Rev. John Lo Schiavo, a lifelong basketball enthusiast and all-city power forward in his youth, let it be known after the second NCAA case was resolved in 1980 that he would shut down the high profile program if there was any further incident.
Despite Lo Schiavo's warning, the improprieties continued. Basketball players still received special academic treatment; many were marginal students at best, and at least one incident occurred in which a player threatened another student, and the incident was swept under the rug by school officials. It was also commonplace for "tutors" to take tests and write papers for players. Alumni were also giving or "lending" players large sums of money, paying them for no-show jobs, providing lavish gifts, as well as picking up pricy restaurant and entertainment tabs. The situation finally came to a head in December 1981, when All-American guard Quintin Dailey was found guilty of assaulting a female student. During the subsequent investigation, Dailey admitted taking a no-show job for $1,000 a month at a business owned by a prominent USF booster, while another booster had also paid Dailey $5,000 since 1980.
True to his word, on July 26, 1982, Lo Schiavo announced that he was shutting down the basketball program—the first time a Division I university had voluntarily shut down a major sport under such circumstances. In a prepared statement, Lo Schiavo said, "We hope that it one day may be possible to restore a men's intercollegiate basketball team. That possibility will depend upon whether those responsible for this university are convinced that the factors that destroyed the program are not going to beset it again." He added that the program had a reputation for being “hypocritical or naïve or inept or duplicitous, or perhaps some combination of these,” and thus had no place at USF in its current state.
His decision made international headlines, to the degree that while visiting San Francisco, Queen Elizabeth II pulled Lo Schiavo aside to ask when he would reinstate the basketball program. Drastic as it was, the move was widely applauded by several members of the coaching fraternity.
San Francisco reinstated men's basketball in 1985. However, the Dons have never approached the prominence they enjoyed from the 1940s to the early 1980s, mainly because Lo Schiavo significantly increased admissions standards for all student-athletes. In a 2011 interview, Lo Schiavo reiterated that he never questioned his decision. “I thought it was the right thing at the time and I still do...I talked it over with the trustees and we unanimously agreed —with the exception of one trustee— that it would be good to drop basketball because we had to make the point that we mean what we say and we intended to be good citizens.”
Tulane University men's basketball, 1985
In March 1985, Tulane University faced one of the more sordid scandals in NCAA history when five basketball players, most notably star John "Hot Rod" Williams, were alleged to have been involved in a point shaving scheme. According to New Orleans prosecutors, the ringleaders of the scheme used cocaine to gain the confidence of the players. While Williams was tried on charges related to the scheme, a mistrial was declared and the presiding judge dropped all charges.
In the meantime, Tulane enlisted a law firm from outside the New Orleans area to conduct an in-house investigation. During the probe, head coach Ned Fowler and two assistants admitted to paying players. On April 4, president Eamon Kelly announced that he would recommend the permanent disbanding of the basketball program in order to "demonstrate unambiguously this academic community's intolerance of the violations and actions we have uncovered." Soon afterward, Fowler and his staff handed in their resignations. By the end of the month, Tulane's athletic director also resigned, and the school was forced to leave the Metro Conference as a result. According to Sports Illustrated, the scandal, combined with reports of academic impropriety, enraged the faculty to the point that several members wanted to drop intercollegiate athletics altogether. They were only appeased when Kelly proposed to shut down the basketball program.
Kelly was praised for his decision to abolish the program; SI's Armen Keteyian wrote that given the egregiousness of the misconduct, nothing short of "the most drastic measure" was appropriate. At the time, Kelly vowed that men's basketball would never be reinstated; when asked if there was any chance it would return, he replied, "Permanent means permanent." However, he relented in 1988 when students who wanted a return of basketball convinced him that they were effectively being punished for something that happened before they came to Tulane. The program resumed play in the 1989–90 season, with Tulane returning to the Metro.
Western Kentucky University swimming and diving, 2015
On April 14, 2015, Western Kentucky University suspended its men's and women's swimming and diving programs for five years. The suspension came about as a result of a self-directed Title IX investigation into allegations of hazing. 
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