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Stepped Up NCAA Enforcement Is An Incomplete Solution

As a follow up to my piece yesterday about college athletics and amateurism, I did want to highlight the overarching issue of enforcement.

One potential solution to the problem of players and coaches breaking NCAA rules that gets talked about a lot is stepped up enforcement. The NCAA and member schools could pour a lot more time, money, and manpower into catching and punishing those who cross the line.

Here's the thing. When a person is contemplating breaking the rules, they have to weigh some factors. Here they are in inequality format, with it tilted towards not breaking rules:

Value gained from breaking rule < (Value lost from getting caught) * (% chance of getting caught)

I'm not just talking about dollar value here. For some people, a free meal is a free meal and cash is just cash. For others, getting free meals and the like is fulfilling a desire to be treated by a celebrity. Getting cash could mean helping out a family member for some people. Cheating without getting caught also gives coaches the chance to improve their reputation and prestige. There are intangibles at play here.

As such, the NCAA cannot affect the left side of this inequality. If it was up to the NCAA, it would always be zero because no athlete or coach would be tempted to breaking the rules. We don't live in that world though. People will have chances to break the rules no matter what the NCAA does.

The NCAA has some effect on the value lost from getting caught, but it varies. Suspending players only works if you catch them before they leave school, and the glacial pace of most investigations doesn't help in that regard. The fact that the NFL will still take guys who sit out an entire season, like second round pick Marvin Austin, certainly doesn't help in football specifically. Vacating records does little because no one outside Indianapolis cares what the official record books say. Sanctions hurt programs, but they can't do anything to anyone who has left a program (see: Carroll, Pete). Perhaps the shame of bringing bad things on a program factors in, but if a guy is, say, trading championship rings for tattoos, you wonder how much that guy cares about the program in the first place.

The original argument here is about stepping up enforcement, which ties in with the final factor: percent chance of getting caught. As the NCAA has no subpoena power, this factor has a cap on it. There is only so far investigations can go. Plus a huge part of enforcement is a reliance on self-reporting, but some coaches and institutions act like they have incentives not to report everything (hello, Jim Tressel and Ohio State). Because of the possibility of obstruction, even having more investigators around doesn't guarantee that every case will move faster or find the ultimate truth of what happened.

Here's the kicker though: the actual values in that inequality don't matter much in the decision making process. What does matter is what players and coaches think the values are in the moment they're considering breaking rules. That's where stepped up enforcement falls apart a bit, especially with players.

Young people are notorious for not having the best judgment. They are likely to overestimate the value gained from breaking the rules and underestimate the value lost from getting caught and the chance of getting caught. Plus, 18- to 22-year-olds are not known for consistently delaying or refusing gratification when the consequences for it are both not guaranteed and far in the future. Of course, it's not just young people who have problems doing this math.

Stepped up enforcement will probably result in more malfeasance being uncovered, but it doesn't change the underlying incentives involved in the decision on whether people will break rules or not. Those incentives are captured in the value gained from breaking the rules and value lost by getting caught. Increased penalties can change the value lost part of the calculus, but that's likely to be more effective on coaches and administrators than players. The athletes, after all, play four seasons at a maximum and would have to be caught early in their careers for the penalties to have a real impact.

We all know that NCAA violations will be only be eliminated at the same time the rule book is, so stopping violations entirely is an unrealistic goal. Stepped up enforcement could help reduce them, but it would be more effective as a part of a package that addresses the rest of the equation.