Shock, irritation, anger — there aren’t enough words to describe the emotions Oklahoma State fans felt when the NCAA levied, what many describe as, unfair Level I sanctions on OSU’s men’s basketball program.
And it’s not just OSU followers, many across the nation were enraged with NCAA’s strong punishment.
Count ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas among them.
“The postseason ban, I feel in this case, is egregious,” Bilas told the O’Colly. “It is over-punishing, and the punishment is not in any way proportional to the charge.”
These punishments for the actions of former assistant coach Lamont Evans’ crimes include a $10,000 fine, loss of scholarships, three years of probation and several other penalties, but the one that has everyone in disbelief is the postseason ban.
And that ban is critical considering Cowboys coach Mike Boynton put together a top-5 recruiting class, highlighted by No. 1 recruit Cade Cunningham, to boost what many foresaw as a breakthrough season.
The consensus among most onlookers is that the NCAA acted in an unruly fashion and handed out a punishment that made no sense. And so the questions begin to pile up.
Why would the NCAA do this? Is the appeal winnable? Where does OSU go from here?
With an unprecedented ruling baffling to so many people, there’s one thought that pops to mind: is the NCAA trying to make an example out of OSU?
“Of course, that’s always the case in NCAA enforcement and the judicial process,” Bilas said. “It is that they feel like every case provides them the opportunity to send a message. And they have been embarrassed in past cases by their missteps, most notably the North Carolina case.”
While many believe UNC got off easy without a punishment after it was revealed and confirmed that the school was providing fake classes for almost two decades, Bilas said that’s not the case — the NCAA rules don’t allow for academic fraud charges.
But that’s the problem.
“Garbage in, garbage out — if you have bad policy, you’re going to get bad results,” Bilas said. “If the NCAA wanted academic fraud that was perpetrated by an academic department, not by the athletic department, they could have passed a rule saying that’s academic fraud. But in fact, they had a rule that said it wasn’t.”
Bilas said that sort of “bad policy” is the exact thing that’s clawing at OSU now.
And so the logic the NCAA follows, according to Bilas, is because Evans worked for OSU, the school is deemed responsible for the ethical violation.
“We don’t have an issue where recruiting rules were violated, where extra benefits were provided that gave Oklahoma State a competitive advantage in getting or retaining players,” Bilas said. “And not one ineligible player was playing for one minute. So the only violation was on an individual, and it’s accepted nobody knew about it nor could they have reasonably known.
“In punishing the ethical violation, the NCAA punishes the players. That makes no rational sense whatsoever.”
Penalties need to be proportional to their violation — that’s how Evans’ case was handled. And that’s how things work in general. But not in OSU’s case.
Bilas said these sanctions serve two purposes: to punish and as a deterrent for future violations.
“This does neither,” Bilas said. “Does anybody think any coach or administrator would look at this and say, ‘Well jeez, I better not violate ethical rules that could put me in prison because after I’m sentenced to prison, my school could get a postseason ban?’ That’s absurd."
It simply doesn’t add up — no matter how anyone looks at it. So the question remains: why did the NCAA levy such a severe punishment?
Well, it’s complicated.
But before diving into that, Bilas said there are practical realities that OSU’s basketball program has to deal with. The first concern? The players.
“The NCAA — and part of this is they deem this punishment — they allow the players to leave and be eligible right away,” Bilas said. “So essentially what they’re doing is, opening the door for the players and encouraging them to leave. They’re also encouraging incoming recruits to leave, specifically Cade Cunningham.”
The second thing Bilas brings up is the postseason ban is an overbearing punishment that isn’t proportional to the crime.
Conventional wisdom would state the NCAA should lose credibility when it over-punishes an organization, like they did here, but the organization doesn’t have the same thought process.
“The more you complain about (the punishment), the more the NCAA likes it,” Bilas said. “They like that this sort of sanction is seen as hurting Oklahoma State.”
So that results in, what Bilas describes as, a sort of catch-22 situation. The NCAA’s image should be hurt by such a rash ruling, but that isn’t necessarily what happened.
“Others believe that you are dragging past cases for when the NCAA was asleep at the wheel,” Bilas said. “There are many of those (people), and they feel like over-punishing here helps make up for that. I disagree with that line of thinking, but that line of thinking exists both inside of the association and out.”
And so it ends up a skewed situation. Bilas said if this violation had been found five years ago, the punishment would be vastly different.
But he said since the NCAA was embarrassed by the FBI investigation and the subsequent court cases, Bilas said the organization felt pressured to reassert itself and capture the credibility it felt it lost. And that’s what OSU is feeling the brunt of.
“I talked to a number of coaches today, and the general feeling was they thought the message was a message from the NCAA loud and clear that (the NCAA) are going to crack down on any violation,” Dick Vital told the O’Colly on Friday. “For a Level I penalty, I thought the penalty was absolutely, really excessive big time. It was very, very tough when they came... But the year of taking away a chance at the NCAA tournament really surprised me.”
Going along with that, Bilas said the NCAA has built up a false narrative that if something goes wrong, there has to be pinpoint responsibility. But that doesn't go both ways.
For example, during the 2011 University of Miami scandal, NCAA employees working in Indianapolis worked to subvert the federal bankruptcy process. There was an investigation into the NCAA, and those people who acted illegally were found and fired, but NCAA President Mark Emmert wasn’t touched.
And that makes some sense, since he was found to have done nothing wrong. Schools, however, aren’t afforded that same courtesy.
“That’s not the standard to which coaches and athletic departments are held,” Bilas said. “That’s profoundly wrong. And it’s wrong, not because Mark Emmert is not treated unreasonably, it is wrong because athletic departments are treated unreasonably.”
And that’s the big issue. If a similar situation were to happen to an athletic program, the whole program would be penalized, not just those employees — as it was with the NCAA case.
“So many people like to look at the process and say, ‘Well see, (the NCAA) is now taking a hard-line stance,’ until it’s them,” Bilas said. “Then when it’s your school involved in it, you find out just how screwed up of a process this is. Because it is not fair, it is not equitable and it doesn’t make any sense.”
What the NCAA did to OSU infuriated many, but the ruling has already been handed out — the decision has been made
Now the next step is for OSU to go and fight through appeal. While it may look like the school has a strong case considering the precedent, will it win the appeal?
“Given the way the NCAA has changed procedures over the years, they changed their procedures to make it more difficult to appeal, I’m not optimistic that appeal is going to do much good,” Bilas said.
Nothing is set in stone, of course, but it looks to be an uphill climb for OSU, which the school needs to be prepared for.
But no matter how it’s sliced up, it’s undoubtedly a tough blow to a basketball program that looked ready to take a colossal step forward.
Still, this isn’t the end.
“These are all short-term issues,” Bilas said. “If you look back at the history of these sorts of bans, you have outrage at first, then the NCAA comes back and says too bad... Then the school handles it, and they move on. It’s very rare that you’ve seen big-time programs that have gone through this and haven’t bounced back. Oklahoma State will bounce back.”