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Postseason bans punish all the wrong people

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Point this punishment much more squarely at the institutions themselves.

Braxton Miller and Ohio State celebrate a 2012 touchdown. Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

One of the NCAA’s favorite tools of punishment has long been THE BOWL BAN, and it’s also one of the things programs most fear. Being placed in a side reality where your games don’t matter, at least in the national picture, is weird and sad, especially for the many involved people who didn’t do anything wrong at all.

The ban shouldn’t exist in its present form. There’s a better way.

The big problem with the bowl ban is that it punishes players more than anyone else — often, entire rosters of players who didn’t even break any NCAA rules.

Between an investigation, the filing of charges, the response by the school, the NCAA’s decision, and the school’s appeal, the whole ordeal can take an eternity. Cases at North Carolina and Ole Miss took the better part of the 2010s.

Meanwhile, a player’s career is four or five years, max. A coach’s tenure at a school might be much shorter.

Because the NCAA is not an actual law enforcement body, much to its dismay, it can’t do anything to people no longer involved in college sports. By the time the NCAA’s judicial process is wrapped up, the actual rule-breakers might be beyond reach.

So, how do you really stick it to those cheaters? If a player who is still playing took money or cheated on a test, you can make them ineligible. If a coach or administrator did something, you can make it hard for someone to employ them in college sports. But if you can’t do any of those, you can ... bowl-ban the school that broke the rules once upon a time!

Many or all of the players on that team weren’t even there when the rule-breaking happened. They’re penalized for others’ actions, and they miss an opportunity they might only get one or two times.

Consider the 2012 season, which included:

  • A banned Ohio State went undefeated, but players missed out on a Rose Bowl trip because of violations that began in 2008. That NCAA case was about people who were already gone. (Ohio State could’ve just self-imposed a ban the year before, but the point wouldn’t change.)
  • A banned North Carolina won the ACC Coastal, but players missed out on a conference title shot and bowl because tutors had been a little too helpful in years leading up to 2010. Over the same time frame, some players got money from agent types. The vast majority of the players on the 2012 roster had nothing to do with any of it.
  • The next team up in the Coastal was Miami. But the Canes couldn’t go either, because they were in the second year of a self-imposed ban, which they correctly figured would get them some NCAA mercy. Miami’s violations went back to the early 2000s, when some of the players on their 2012 roster were in elementary school.
  • (Penn State was also postseason-banned, due to actual crimes involving none of that year’s roster. The NCAA would later walk this back, seeming to acknowledge it should leave criminal punishments to law enforcement.)

If the NCAA wants to use the postseason to discourage rule-breaking, it shouldn’t go after players. It should exclusively go after schools.

The NCAA knows rules violations are institutional. A “loss of institutional control” is the NCAA’s version of a war crime. The organization distributes PowerPoints about the importance of “promoting a culture of compliance.”

Holding players accountable for rules broken by other people makes no sense. However, holding schools accountable for those broken rules makes plenty of sense — after all, schools made all those rules in the first place.

Let the players have their bowl game. They’re unpaid, and they work hard year-round to get to one. Let them collect their $550 worth of bowl gifts.

Just don’t let the offending school collect a share of postseason money. Let the school keep only what it costs to send its travel party.

Generally, a bowl pays a participant’s conference, which then combines it with other bowl money and distributes that pool to members more or less evenly. A typical Power 5 team’s bowl share is seven figures, though the number varies by league and year.

Some conferences already do versions of this, which has also helped reveal how much money we’re talking about here. When Ole Miss took bowl bans in 2017 and ‘18, the AD said the loss was $8 million a year. For most Group of 5 schools, a postseason share is something in the $1 million ballpark, though it could be smaller than that.

The big changes here are twofold. One, a policy like the SEC’s gets nationalized. Two, the public shame is directed more clearly where it should go: to the school.

Schools that lose money will holler about how the student-athlete experience will be worse without that cash. But it’s worth noting Power 5 schools are not always as cash-strapped as they like to appear, and G5s are already not making much on these games

The loss of a share is plenty to annoy an administration without hurting players. If money’s tight, have the coach, AD, and president chip in. Problem solved and lesson learned.

The NCAA could execute this philosophy a few different ways. All of them would involve making a national rule.

Idea #1: The conference gives the school’s bowl share to a worthy charity.

Idea #1.5: The conference forfeits the postseason share generated by the team in question, making everyone’s cut smaller. The money goes into a sort of hardship fund for small-school programs that actually need more funding.

Why is it fair to punish schools that didn’t do anything? Because if my friends are assholes in the backseat of an Uber I called, my rating still goes down. If one SEC team gets caught cheating, everyone else must deal with the consequences. Presidents and ADs may not like getting punished for stuff they didn’t do, but that’s been happening to players for generations.

Idea #2: The conference withholds the school’s bowl share, with the money getting spread around to everyone else. When Ole Miss was banned, the SEC simply didn’t give the Rebels a cut, leaving more pie for everybody else. This means the offending school is further punished by directly benefiting its rivals.

If a banned team doesn’t even win six games, a league can still deny the school a share of bowl profits.

Idea #3: The conference specifically earmarks the school’s bowl money for teams it cheated against. Did Auburn play an ineligible player against Mississippi State and Tennessee, specifically? Congratulations, Bulldogs and Vols. You get Auburn’s bowl money.

What about independents and non-FBS teams? That’s why the NCAA should make a national rule. Indies could be treated the same as teams in conferences, with the only difference being their withheld bowl money doesn’t pass through a league office first. It all goes directly to charity or a national pool.

Schools below FBS must follow the same rule with playoff money, which is a lot smaller to begin with.

And one caveat: Don’t apply any of these to schools the NCAA banned for having too low an Academic Progress Report score. APR is a flawed system that inherently punishes resource-starved schools and students, and there’s no reason to take more from them.

Any of these would be a stick to keep schools in line without punishing the people who didn’t break the rules.

We can focus on changing amateurism rules another time. For now, the NCAA has the rules it has. Punishing the specific people who broke them isn’t always possible, but surely there’s a better target than the specific people who didn’t.