Sam Mellinger

The NCAA’s shameful and cowardly punishment of Mizzou

One tutor went rogue with 12 students and the University of Missouri athletic department is fined hundreds of thousands of dollars, docked scholarships, must vacate wins, gets slapped with recruiting restrictions and is even banned from playing in a bowl game next season.

What amounted to institutional academic fraud involving more than a thousand athletes was proven at North Carolina and ... bupkis.

The NCAA is often criticized, especially here, but that’s only because the band of hypocritical, make-it-up-as-they-go, common-sense-below-all-else bureaucrats makes it so dang easy.

Mizzou is taking a harsh penalty here for a misdeed it did not and could not be reasonably expected to know about in real time. The school, by all accounts, cooperated and followed protocols once the misdeeds were known. Mizzou would’ve been better off lying. Or, taking UNC’s example, better off creating, controlling and expanding the misdeeds throughout campus and over many years.

Academic fraud is serious, and should be dealt with as such. But there is no evidence that Mizzou’s athletic department knew about or would have condoned the tutor — unnamed in the report but known to be Yolanda Kumar — completing course work for athletes.

Common sense would call for closer monitoring of athletic department tutors.

The NCAA does not traffic in common sense, so here comes a hammer punishment that hilariously includes a 10-year show-cause order for Kumar.

Again, academic fraud is serious, and should be dealt with as such. At North Carolina, it was proven that more than a thousand athletes enrolled in what amounted to 188 fake classes over more than a decade, helping maintain their eligibility — including with national champion basketball teams. Investigators concluded that UNC employees knew of the fraud and purposefully pushed struggling students, including athletes, to take those classes.

Common sense would call for a massive punishment in that case.

The NCAA does not traffic in common sense, so it stood down, effectively agreeing with UNC lawyers that since non-athletes also enrolled in the courses it did not amount to “extra benefits” for athletes.

You don’t even need to be that cynical to see this as the NCAA looking at UNC basketball’s popularity and deciding to go full Lloyd Christmas: close its eyes, cover its ears, and yell LALALALALALA!!!

Mizzou tried to cooperate with the NCAA’s investigation. As it turned out, the better defense would have been to make sure Kumar also helped some frat guys and intramural athletes cheat their way through school.

To be clear, Mizzou’s punishment is not out of line with other academic fraud cases.

And to be even clearer, that is a criticism of the NCAA, not a defense.

Anyone who values simple common sense more than years of lawyer-exploited loopholes would conclude that North Carolina should be punished much more harshly than Mizzou.

But the NCAA has long wrapped itself inside of so many nonsensical rules, arbitrarily written without enough consideration for unintended consequences, that it has made itself a literal joke among many institutions it is charged with governing.

The NCAA’s mission is difficult. It oversees hundreds of institutions from coast to coast, each with varying motivations and resources.

And because the — ahem — non-profit organization known as the NCAA uses its billions of dollars to build opulent facilities for unpaid athletes and fund six-figure salaries for redundant administrators instead of committing a reasonable amount toward enforcement of its own antiquated rules, the NCAA has a credibility crisis.

That’s the organization’s own fault, a choice its member schools have made collectively for their own individual and short-term interests. And the problem just worsened with this overreach against Mizzou.

This is jail time for a traffic violation, and if this is the outcome, why should schools cooperate with NCAA investigations in the future?

On a conference call with reporters, the chief hearing officer for the NCAA’s panel was asked if schools were being tacitly encouraged to lie or otherwise not cooperate with investigators.

“You can certainly make that argument,” he said.

In what world is this OK?

In whose version of justice does this make sense?

The NCAA created this mess for itself. It created the mess by underfunding its own ability to enforce rules that don’t make sense, and by a decades-long run of rulings and penalties that have convinced many that some schools are protected while others are punished.

Even a shred of self-awareness, common sense or an ability to prioritize the spirit of the made-up law instead of its letter would be a vast improvement.

The NCAA’s entire history would indicate that none of that is coming. Mizzou is the latest school with the tire tracks to prove it.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.