Short of an actual death penalty for Southern University’s entire athletic program, it’s hard to imagine the NCAA handing down a harsher set of penalties than it did Wednesday for lack of institutional control over the school's long-festering eligibility and certification issues.
Five years probation, a vacating of wins over the past six years and, almost comically by comparison, a $5,000 fine.
The problems as outlined by the NCAA are deep and troubling. Four-hundred thirty-nine instances involving 218 improperly certified student-athletes over six years in every one of the 15 sports programs fielded by Southern.
Southern’s problems stemmed from egregious clerical issues and, according to the NCAA, a lack of training and involvement by university departments outside the certification process.
A particular issue the NCAA pointed out was the fact that the university didn’t properly account for in-state tuition waivers for student-athletes, which equated to a competitive advantage for the football, baseball, softball and track and field teams.
Those sports, along with men’s and women’s basketball, soccer and volleyball, will endure scholarship reductions from 2016-19.
It’s always difficult to judge the proper balance between NCAA penalties that will be meted out in the future for things that happened in the past. As noted by Southern interim athletic director Roman Banks — also the men’s basketball coach and a person whose team will bear the brunt of some of these penalties — the people involved in these violations are no longer with the athletic department.
Ultimately, though, there is no other way to go about it. Banks, who has done exceptional work leading one of Southern’s strongest programs while trying to clean up this mess, could in a way be justified in complaining about what these sanctions will do to his and the rest of SU’s teams. But in his statement Wednesday, Banks took the high road, calling the penalties “fair and equitable.”
So be it. One can make culprits out of the byzantine NCAA rule book and a lack of resources at the school that contributed to Southern’s violations, but these are no viable excuses.
More than 1,100 colleges and universities comprise divisions I, II and III in the NCAA. The vast majority of them, like Southern, are not awash with the kind of funding and staffing that ensures their compliance offices and procedures are operating within the rules. But the vast majority of NCAA member schools do their best to comply, or at least avoid running afoul of the rules to the degree that Southern’s athletic program did.
If the old axiom holds true that it is often necessary to cut in order to cure, then these sanctions can be seen as a line of demarcation for Southern between the old flawed ways of keeping the compliance books and the new and proper way going forward.
To be sure, there will be pain aplenty for Southern’s athletic programs for years to come. Promising athletes will be discouraged from attending Southern because they won’t want to be part of programs on probation.
Others will be denied the opportunity because the scholarships that should be there for them simply won’t exist. In that sense, the degree to which Southern failed its former, current and potentially future student-athletes is incalculable.
Ultimately, the hope is Southern will emerge from this embarrassing episode with the resolve and resources to never let this happen again. If it cannot, then Southern as a university needs to question why it competes in intercollegiate athletics at all.