Let’s hear it for the state of Oklahoma. When it comes to passing laws that will have no real consequence but have plenty of symbolism, very few things top a law passed last week. This new statute states that, as of November 1, Oklahoma universities can sue the boosters or third parties who cause the NCAA to hit the school with penalties.
Schools can, of course, lose millions and millions of dollars if punished by the NCAA. Some schools lose TV money. Some schools lose the ability to make playoffs, and that can cost lots and lots of money. So the thinking is that the innocent party, the school, should be able to sue the person who caused that damage and thus recoup the money lost because of the punishment.
This all sounds great in theory, but the reality is that there is still going to be cheating. Boosters are still going to find ways to give improper benefits to players. But if the school and the boosters are really serious about this whole cheating thing, it’s easy to channel the money through a bagman of some type while the real party gets off and the university continues to disavow all knowledge and acts like the harmed party.
Make no mistake, the universities always know what is going on. Some schools actively participate — see SMU in the 1980s or SMU basketball under Larry Brown or Baylor basketball while Dave Bliss was paying players and allegedly covering up a murder. USC didn’t get the death penalty as a result of issues around Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo, but there was no doubt that Trojans coaches and administrators were well aware of what was going on and yet chose to ignore it because national titles were more important.
People from Oklahoma are saying the right things, of course. Boosters say this is a good thing because it drives the bad guys out and it makes the game more honest. And there is already talk of it having a chilling effect on some third parties who might otherwise be tempted to engage in misdeeds.
“They're quite honestly able to get away with a lot of improper payments, improper benefits because essentially, they believe they won't be punished,” Oklahoma City attorney and agent Kelli Masters told The Oklahoman. “Seeing an actual state law that has some teeth, that could be enforceable against bad actors — that's really the only way to curtail that type of behavior.”
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There’s actually nothing about this law that will actually prevent schools or boosters from continuing to break NCAA rules. It sounds tough — a bad guy has to pay back money to wronged university if the school gets caught violating NCAA regulations. But it’s really nothing more than a monetary benefit to the university that says, hey, go ahead, break the rules. If you don’t get caught, you still win games, you still make lots of TV money, you still get into the playoffs and make more money there. But if you get nailed, hey, don’t worry about all that money you’re going to miss out on because now you can just sue some booster and get all that money back. And is a title really all that important if the school still makes just as much money on probation as it would winning the title?
Maybe I’m just too cynical. But it seems that only the most naive of college sports fans believe that this type of law will make any difference. It’s still really easy for a coach to go to a very rich booster and get that booster to do a few improper things. Sure, some booster might have to pay a few bucks back to the school if they all get caught, but it’s all worth it if there’s a title or two.
It’s actually kind of surprising that Texas politicians haven’t tried passing a law like this one — if there’s anything current Texas political leadership loves, it's symbolic bills that really do nothing. But this really does sound like something some alum of UT or Texas A&M would try to pass in order to protect the sanctity of their schools.
There’s no question that some boosters would eagerly run the risk of getting caught and having to pay back the school just for the shot at that table. And there’s no question that schools will do whatever is needed to win. If not, guys like John Calipari and Lane Kiffin wouldn’t keep getting hired.