Skip to main content

Here’s More Evidence That Not All College Sports Are Created Equal

A new report finds that 83 percent of all university infractions involved men’s basketball or football.

By Max Ufberg


(Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Every school year brings with it a seemingly endless list of eye-popping violations committed by Division I college sports teams: cash gifts provided by coaches to players on the University of Mississippi football team; the Big Brother-esque monitoring of Syracuse University’s men’s basketball players’ email accounts; the ongoing investigations into whether the University of North Carolina straight-up fabricated some of its athletes’ classes.

While perhaps especially flagrant, these cases aren’t rarities. A 2011 analysis by Inside Higher Ed found that, between 2001 and 2010, nearly half of all major university sports programs were punished by the National Collegiate Athletic Association for rule violations. And while that fact might be shocking, it’s not really surprising. For universities, sports is big business, and big business too often comes in opposition to integrity. But are all sports equally duplicitous? And if not, which programs are receiving the brunt of this punishment? Division I baseball receives far less airtime and financial support than football — is it also far less corrupt?

Not according to a new study of NCAA Division I infractions, which finds that an astounding 83 percent of them involved men’s basketball or football. “The public sentiment is that these are the high-profile sports where there’s more of a risk/reward opportunity,” says study co-author Jeremy Jordan, director of Temple University’s Sport Industry Research Center, “so perhaps they are more willing to take these chances.” The report, which analyzed violations from 1953 to 2014, listed “recruiting inducements, impermissible benefits, other recruiting violations, and unethical conduct” as the most common infractions.

Which programs are receiving the bulk of this punishment?

The study, which Jordan says is the first to look at all infractions over a 60-year period, provides further ammunition for smaller athletic programs who argue that the deck is stacked against them. Schools in powerhouse conferences were subject to the same penalties — most common among them probation and public reprimand, though in some cases that meant scholarship reductions, post-season bans — as were their smaller counterparts. But, Jordan concedes, a penalty is far less devastating for the bottom line of a school like UNC than for, say, that of Ball State University. “Conference membership doesn’t for the most part change the penalty structure. So bigger schools don’t [generally] get punished more severely,” Jordan says.

Jordan’s work dovetails with a report published last year by the Drake Group, which found a “lack of consistency” by the NCAA in investigating and penalizing universities. Analyzing 39 fraud allegations since 1990, the Drake Group researchers concluded that the NCAA tends to dole out punishment based less on the seriousness of the infraction, and more on the NCAA’s concern for its own self-image. (For example, a huge penalty against UNC may not look so good for college basketball’s governing body.) “It gives the perception of the NCAA using situational ethics,” Drake Group president Gerald Gurney told CNN. “What is best for the situation is best for the NCAA.”

If there’s a silver lining in Jordan’s report, it’s the successful uptick in universities’ self-reporting. “Prior to 1984, only 9 percent of the cases involved self-reporting — that is, when an institution identified the infractions they’d committed to the NCAA, rather than the NCAA finding them out,” he says. “But since 1984, it’s up to 48 percent.”

Of course, ideally there would be no need for self-reporting in the first place.