The NCAA is making a statement, that’s for sure — that being “don’t cooperate with us. It will only end badly for you, your players, and your school.”
The college athletics ruling body has chosen to make Oklahoma State a prime example of that, as it doled out a heavy-handed sanction to the Cowboys’ men’s basketball team for offenses that occurred in 2017 — when no current member of the team was enrolled in school there. As the NCAA’s vise grip on student athletes loosens with NIL allowances and the Supreme Court’s antitrust ruling, it seems to be taking any opportunity it can to remind everyone that it still has the power to crack down — which only further illustrates to everyone under the association’s thumb that the best way forward may be “deny, deny, deny.”
In one of the higher-profile NCAA sanction cases in recent memory, the NCAA has issued a postseason ban, recruiting restrictions, probation, a decrease in scholarships, and a fine to the Oklahoma State basketball program. It all stemmed from an FBI investigation that ended with an assistant coach, Lamont Evans, serving jail time after pleading guilty to accepting bribes to push players toward certain financial advisers. The NCAA finalized the current ruling in 2020, but now, after an appeals process, these sanctions will go into effect for the 2021-2022 season and, in some cases, beyond.
The school does not appear to have been complicit in this assistant coach’s bribery scheme, and another school that he coached at, South Carolina, did not receive a postseason ban. While program-wide sanctions are sometimes necessary, schools have also completely skated on system-wide inquiries before, like the UNC academic fraud probe (2017, no penalties).
So this Oklahoma State penalty seems rather excessive, as the coach in question was fired by the school immediately after the FBI investigation began. And while what Evans did was illegal, it didn’t actually affect any part of the performance or eligibility of any players on the team. Despite full cooperation from the athletic department — or perhaps because that cooperation made them an easy target — the NCAA has decided to play God and smite the Cowboys for having unwittingly hired a coach found guilty of accepting bribes.
Penalties as severe as postseason bans are more often seen in cases of major infraction categories, including institutional control, failure to monitor, recruiting, head coach accountability, participation of an ineligible athlete or academic fraud. The Oklahoma State infraction does not fall under any of these categories. The school itself pointed this out in its press release:
In what is believed to be a decision unprecedented in the history of the NCAA, a member institution has received a postseason ban despite no violations in the areas of institutional control, failure to monitor, recruiting, head coach accountability, participation of an ineligible athlete or academic fraud.
Inconsistency in NCAA penalties and sanctions has long been an issue. Schools that comply and self-report are often dealt more extreme punishments than the schools that try to dodge sanctions. It reads as a parent or teacher punishing a child for fessing up to coloring on the walls, while ignoring the kid who’s going around biting everyone.
There are countless infamous examples of self-reporting going wrong — here’s a clear, recent one: the NCAA stripping the UMass women’s tennis team of a national championship for an accidental infraction of less than $300.
When an opportunity is handed to the ruling body to exert its power, it takes advantage, forgoing the more difficult and often more significant infractions in favor of penalizing schools that are attempting to cooperate with them. The NCAA grabs again and again at low-hanging fruit and lets the blue-blood programs walk free, not wanting to get into a battle with its best earners. It’s almost as if they are saying out loud that it would be horrible if North Carolina had to sit out the NCAA men’s tournament one year for rule-breaking. It’s like they’re not even trying to hide their favoritism tendencies, nor their laziness in choosing not to pursue non-compliant investigations. If schools are examining these trends at all, it’s not hard to at least contemplate that the best course of action is to turn a blind eye when rule-bending is discovered (not that they should).
The Oklahoma State coaching staff has been very clear about its disappointment and frustration with this ruling. You can watch head coach Mike Boynton’s statements regarding its postseason ban and failed appeal here. Spoiler alert: It’s not real hard to tell how he feels about it all.