By Maureen Arellano Weston
The American Review of International Arbitration (forthcoming 2012)
Everyone loves a winning team. Success in a major athletic program, particularly an NCAA Division I national championship, translates into millions of dollars and immense pride for the players, coaches, alumni, students, and the university. A major intercollegiate athletics program can also have a positive impact on the academic mission of a university. Revenues from broadcast rights and merchandise sales, admissions applications, and fundraising for the entire university are enhanced. A winning program can also catapult the recruiting process and be a determinative factor in a soughtafter high school student-athlete’s choice of university.
Along with the tangible benefits and lure of winning is the intense pressure to win. . . . The love of the sport, as well as the prospects for a collegiate scholarship and a potentially lucrative professional sports career, motivate young athletes to devote years to intense training and competition. Many families spend thousands of dollars to provide instruction and competitive development opportunities to their children. Coaches are certainly invested as well, with their job security, status, and compensation packages largely dependent upon producing winning programs. For better or worse, scouts and agents are on watch to identify and attract star athletes as future professional sport clients. Likewise, the professional sport leagues are eager to sign young talent to their rosters. . . .
The relatively few student-athletes talented, able, and fortunate enough to compete in major intercollegiate sports are highly recruited. The courtship includes promises of scholarships, extensive playing opportunities, and prospects for a professional athletic career. . . .
The NCAA . . . formed for the purpose of administering intercollegiate athletics . . . [is to] ensure that the competitive athletics programs of member institutions are a vital part of the education process, that student-athletes are an “integral part of the student body,” and that college sports retain their hallmark—amateurism. The NCAA has promulgated and enforced rules that govern nearly every aspect of competition, and the student-athlete’s experience, with an aim to ensuring competitive fairness and protecting the interests of student-athletes. In the practical reality of the “arms race” in major collegiate sports, however, these principles are often violated. Some rule violations are minor . . . other violations are egregious, such as payments or a range of impermissible extra benefits provided to players or their families, academic fraud, and recruiting abuses by coaches or agents. . . .
In this competitive environment, some coaches, players, agents, boosters, institutional members, and even parents succumb to the temptation to cheat. A recent case . . . [involved] . . . allegations of cheating in football and men’s basketball by two of the most high-profile student-athletes ever to attend [the university implicated]. [One athlete] was found to have accepted thousands of dollars in cash payments, airline tickets for his parents to attend away football games, a free limousine service, expensive clothing, a vehicle, free lodging in Las Vegas, and a rent-free home and cash for his parents. Tragically, [the student’s] mother and stepfather were at the center of the cheating scandal [in accepting payments in exchange for promises to deliver their son to agents]. . . .
[The university’s] basketball program [involved] infractions [of recruiting and benefits] . . . .
Finding [the university] a “repeat violator,” the NCAA imposed stringent sanctions, including a two-year ban on postseason competition for seasons 2010 and 2011, vacatur of all wins in which these students had competed (since December 2004), and a reduction in the number of football scholarships for 2011–2014. . . .
NCAA rule violations require accountability and consequences. But who really pays for the sins of a few former student-athletes, sleazy agents, or other unscrupulous individuals who associate themselves with an athletic program? Innocent teammates . . . now have their title vacated. Current student-athletes and incoming recruits . . . found themselves on a team much different from what they envisioned, and are not allowed to experience postseason bowl play. . . .
Life is not always fair, but cheating never is. Consequences are necessary . . . but do NCAA sanctions adequately punish the actual wrongdoers, or do they disproportionately impact current student-athletes? . . . Arguably, an entire program is complicit by virtue of association with rule-breakers where there is knowing disregard by institutional officials. But NCAA sanctions impact entire programs, innocent teammates, new recruits, even conference members, and yet fail to penalize many of the actual wrongdoers.
Maureen A. Weston, associate dean for research and professor of law, is the coauthor of casebooks on arbitration and on sports law and has written numerous articles and spoken at academic conferences in the fields of mediation, arbitration, and sports law. She has written articles published by law reviews at Minnesota, William and Mary, Indiana, Tennessee, and the Harvard Negotiation Law Journal, among many others.
Reprinted with permission of Boston College Law Review.