When the Justice Department announced the results of its investigation into the basketball talent game more than four years ago, the item that always seemed most alarming was the charge that Chuck Person, one of the greatest players in Auburn basketball history back in the program as associate head coach, had accepted nearly $100,000 to direct players to a particular financial adviser.
This wasn’t about someone trying to win basketball games by breaking recruiting rules. This charge, to which Person eventually pleaded guilty, had actual victims: the athletes who were getting pressure from someone they trusted to take actions that quite possibly were not in their best interests.
So who do you suppose the NCAA infractions committee punished most harshly for all this?
Well, of course, the student-athletes!
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Players on the 2020-21 Tigers squad were the ones slapped with a postseason ban, a punishment self-imposed by Auburn after all the players had enrolled and no longer could transfer to play and attend school elsewhere. It’s a shady maneuver that has the effect of protecting the program at the expense of those already in it.
The infractions committee also accepted Auburn’s self-imposed reduction in scholarships for last season and insisted Auburn “reduce the number of scholarships by two” during a four-year probationary period.
Coach Bruce Pearl, who the committee found to have “violated head coach responsibility rules” because he did not adequately monitor Person and “failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance,” got a two-game suspension. That’s all, even though Pearl was hit with a three-year show-cause penalty from an infractions case while he was the head coach at Tennessee.
Speaking for the infractions committee, Vince Nicastro of the Big East Conference said Friday that Pearl’s track record was taken into consideration. “It was cited as an aggravating factor,” Nicastro said, “and was factored into the penalty for Coach Pearl.”
One can assume if Pearl’s past record was pristine, the infractions committee might have chosen to punish him with a trip to Hawaii.
Person was assigned a 10-year show-cause penalty, which essentially means nothing because the odds are extreme against any athletic director hiring someone with a felony conviction and only three seasons of college coaching on his resume.
Nothing that came out of the infractions committee’s announcement seemed to bear any connection to the apparent severity of the case nor to its previous, harsh punishment against Oklahoma State.
In June 2020, the Cowboys were hit with a one-year postseason ban because one of its assistants, on staff for a little more than a year and hired by a coach no longer with the program, pleaded guilty to accepting $22,000 in bribes. The committee apparently viewed an issue from 2015 in the OK State football program as an aggravating factor.
So the infractions committee roughed up the Cowboys more than Auburn because of something that happened in another sport, but struck Auburn basketball with a feather even though its case, because of the amount of money involved, could be viewed as one of the most egregious of those that developed from the FBI’s operation.
The NCAA has been using scholarship penalties in an attempt to appear proactive for decades. When employed to extremes, as when Southern California football was docked 30 scholarships over three years, they can severely impair a team’s ability to compete.
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The Auburn sanction merely is cosmetic, and those punished are the athletes who will not benefit from a free education. For more than a decade, the NCAA membership and infractions committee have refused even to consider this reality: A scholarship sanction inevitably means someone will be denied the opportunity for a free education, because NCAA scholarship limitations mean the pool of such awards is finite. A player denied the chance to play for Auburn could find a home at UAB, but then the recruit who might have gotten to play with the Blazers has to look elsewhere. Eventually, that food chain runs out of links.
So the NCAA infractions committee uses this sanction because of … well, habit.
“Obviously, it’s a penalty that’s been used in a very standard way across cases like this and other similar cases for a long time,” Nicastro told Sporting News. “That is a penalty that has been provided to the committee by the membership as one of those that could be meaningful in providing appropriate consequences for schools that are rules violators.”
In fact, the most severe consequences fall to a few young men who are totally unconnected to any of this.
And to the five Auburn players in last year’s rotation who no longer are with the program.
Pearl will be back on Auburn’s bench in a week.
Auburn will be back in the NCAA Tournament this year.