New NCAA rules: Fast, harsh and nuanced

Regular complaints about the NCAA Committee on Infractions usually fall into one of the following categories:

  1. The NCAA spends too much time worrying about stupid stuff and misses the real cheaters.

  2. The NCAA is arbitrary in its punishment.

  3. The NCAA takes too long.

Usually, when fans voice these complaints -- as they have often and loudly during the past two years of nonstop college sports malfeasance -- they come in all-capital letters with an expletive or two thrown in for good measure. But you get the idea, and so did NCAA president Mark Emmert, even before he began his tenure in November 2010. Since then, Emmert has often promised NCAA enforcement reform just as soon as the organization’s membership and board of directors could officially agree on the details.

Today is that day.

On Tuesday morning, the NCAA released an enforcement structure that marks a distinct departure from the crude and counterproductive mechanisms of its past. According to the Division I Board of Directors, the new rules "create additional levels of infractions, hasten the investigation process and ratchet up penalties for the most egregious violations.”

The new enforcement structure includes a four-tier “violation hierarchy.” Level I, “severe breach of conduct,” includes violations that “seriously undermine the integrity of the NCAA college model.” Level II covers “significant breaches of conduct,” Level III mere “breaches of conduct,” and Level IV “incidental issues,” or “minor infractions that are inadvertent and isolated, technical in nature and result in a negligible, if any, competitive advantage.” There is some wiggle room between tiers; multiple Level IV violations may rise to the level of a breach of conduct, for example.

That structure replaces the old two-tier system, in which a violation was considered either minor or major. Those limited designations left a wide amount of wiggle room in NCAA punishment decisions, which under Emmert’s tenure -- as part of his desire to recalibrate cheaters’ cost-benefit calculations -- have grown noticeably more punitive. The organization wants to maintain those harsh consequences, but it also wants to ensure, through clear delineation, that everyone involved -- schools, fans, players and coaches -- know the stakes.

And the NCAA sees coaches playing the key role. Per its release, the NCAA “enhanced head coach responsibility/accountability and potential consequences for head coaches who fail to direct their staffs and student-athletes to uphold NCAA bylaws.” Suspension penalties for coaches can now range as high as an entire season, based on the violations involved.

This part is no joke, punitively. From the release:

Penalties in the previous structure relied on whether the head coach knew of the violations or whether there was a “presumption of knowledge.” But under the new structure, rather than focus on knowledge or the presumption of it, the bylaw will be amended to presume only responsibility. Accordingly, if a violation occurs, the head coach is presumed responsible, and if he or she can’t overcome that presumption, charges will be forthcoming.

In other words, the onus is on coaches to prevent violations on their watch. If they don’t, they can no longer make the case that they just didn’t know. They are presumed responsible until proven otherwise -- guilty until proven innocent.

And, last but not least, the NCAA increased the Division I Committee on Infractions from “10 to as many as 24 voting members from which smaller panels will be assembled to review cases more quickly and efficiently.”

In all, the NCAA seeks to accomplish at least three major goals with these reforms. It wants to:

1. Make its sports' well-compensated coaches most responsible for policing their own programs, and deathly afraid of what happens if they don’t.

2. Provide obvious and consistent guidelines for which violations merit which punishments.

3. Make the enforcement process much faster.

There are many threats to what the NCAA terms “the integrity of the collegiate model,” most of which come from outside the NCAA’s purview. Professional leagues make rules (see: one-and-done) that help or hurt collegiate sports. Money flows through the system from agents and runners. Much, much more money dictates TV rights; looming superconferences could conceivably one day remove and any all of the NCAA's regulatory bite. The very notion of a unique American collegiate amateur model has critics, and rightfully so.

Most of these things are outside of the NCAA’s control. But what the NCAA can control is its own rules, its own methods of handling violations, and the impression such things leave with fans. There’s a reason Emmert appeared in a one-shot YouTube video explaining the new rules Tuesday morning, the same reason he sits down for interviews at NCAA tournament events, the same reason he has been such a vocal presence throughout the first two years of his tenure. He, and the organization he leads, realize it’s not enough to make the rules and enforce them. It has to explain them, too.

Explaining the new enforcement structure won't always be easy, at least at first. Precedents will need to be established, and Roman numerals and various adjectives in front of the phrase "breach of conduct" won't necessarily calm criticism of the organization's essential opacity. But what matters for now is that a new enforcement structure is indeed in place, and it marks a major overhaul from anything that came before it.

The membership’s model will still be under siege from every which angle. Everybody’s always throwing haymakers, and that won’t stop. Nor should it, if you disagree with the idea of amateurism in the first place.

But at least the NCAA is taking steps to stop self-inflicting harm on its public perception. After all, when you're constantly being punched in the face, why give yourself a black eye?