“For the things that happened in North Carolina, it’s abysmal. I would think that this would lead to the implementation of the death penalty by the NCAA. But I’m not in charge of that.”
Harsh words from University of Maryland President Wallace Loh directed at the newly anointed men’s basketball national champion UNC Tarheels and captured by The News & Observer’s Andrew Carter. But in this instance, Loh is more right than he is wrong. The charges are abysmal, and if proven, at least one program at UNC could technically qualify for the death penalty.
The thing Loh states most accurately, however, is that he is not in charge. The people who are in charge, the NCAA Committee on Infractions, are not likely to share Loh’s preference for punishment, although they are likely to consider it.
In fact, it has been 30 years, one month, and two weeks since the last time the NCAA handed down the dreaded death penalty to a Division-I program. It had only done so twice prior, in 1952 and 1973. Even those two previous instances can be discounted some because they were levied under a separate set of circumstances.
When SMU was famously hit with the death penalty in February of 1987, the punishment was justified with a relatively recent stipulation that recipients of the penalty should be repeat offenders. Specifically, the infractions that bring about the death penalty should have happened within five years of a previous set of major penalties being levied.
If we’re following the letter of the law, only UNC football would be eligible as that program previously received sanctions for major infractions in March of 2012, and new allegations cropped up in 2014.
If there is one thing the NCAA is known for, it’s being picky with technicalities. However, in the modern era, they have avoided numerous, textbook opportunities to invoke the death penalty. There was Kansas basketball in ‘88, Kentucky in ‘89, Alabama football in ‘02, and Texas Southern in ‘12. Each of these programs received a harsh (but lesser) penalty in exchange for their cooperation throughout the investigative process. However, Alabama football came particularly close, with then-chairman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, Thomas Yeager saying, “God forbid, there’s ever another appearance…I don’t know what’s left.”
In 2012, following the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Mark Emmert brought up the death penalty as an option for Penn State. In this case, there was no repeat offender status, but due to the nature of the crimes committed, it was intimated by many within the NCAA ranks that Penn State’s football-first culture needed to be put in check, and reportedly, a four-year shutdown of the football program was discussed.
As they did with each instance in the last 30 years, the NCAA opted for lesser sanctions. Although the reasons seem apparent when each of these cases is viewed individually, there is still plenty of supposed analysis and conjecture floating around about why there has been no death penalty levied on a Division-I program in recent years.
“SMU never recovered.”
“There is just too much money at stake.”
“The conferences are really in control now.”
Whatever the argument, I’m not convinced the death penalty is dead. Although unlikely to be implemented in UNC’s case, there is a time and a place where it will come into play. And in a way, I think some within the NCAA feel like they need to wield it again.
College athletics has ballooned into this massive industry with billions of dollars changing hands. Between television revenue and sophisticated recruiting and public relations, it’s never been easier to buy your way back into contention from a postseason ban or scholarship reduction. More and more, the NCAA doesn’t feel like it’s in charge, only showing up to briefly scold a rebellious program that will then turn around and sell “adversity” to its fanbase.
It may not be UNC, but it will be someone. Some program will cross the line, and the NCAA will make an example. Then we’ll know they’re serious.
Matthew Monte is Managing Editor of College AD and formerly Co-Managing Editor of Underdog Dynasty. He is a graduate of The B.I. Moody III College of Business Administration at UL Lafayette, mostly because it didn't require a foreign language. Matt is also a recovering stand up comedian who occasionally relapses.