Welcome back to Failure to Monitor. The series about the NCAA, and how they’ve been shaped by scandal. Last time, we talked about the case of Board of Regents v. NCAA, where the Supreme Court ruled that the organization had breached the Sherman Antitrust Act, opening the floodgates for money to pour into individual schools. Once that line was crossed, the member schools didn’t look back. Big time programs started flaunting their wealth in the face of the NCAA by brazenly paying players and recruits outrageous amounts of money. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the old Southwest Conference. One school decided to go even further than the rest, and the NCAA saw an opportunity to take the power back.

Back in the ‘80s, the Southwest Conference was a powerhouse. It was comprised of all the major schools in the state of Texas, as well as the University of Arkansas. And you know what they say, everything’s bigger in Texas. It turns out, that includes cheating. The influx of cash into college sports coincided nicely with the banking boom that took place in major cities such as Dallas. This meant that there were a bunch of new money millionaires who were looking to prove what a big deal they were. Most of these bankers and oil barons decided that a great place to settle scores with each other was on the football field. In the pursuit of bragging rights, these boosters started writing checks and handing them out to all of the top recruits in the country. Sometimes it went even further. Allegedly, Texas A&M gave the star running back recruit a brand-new gold Trans Am after he agreed to play for them. But on signing day, Dickerson changed his mind and signed with upstart SMU. A team that had almost no history but had recently burst onto the scene. Dickerson was joined in the backfield by Craig James and created what is now known as the Pony Express. But as soon as success started coming, the NCAA followed.

In 1981, SMU was given a one-year bowl ban for recruiting violations carried out by head coach Ron Meyer, who local recruits called “Santa Claus”. It didn’t matter. The team went on to win the Southwestern Conference championship and finish the season ranked fifth in the nation. Teams weren’t scared anymore, because they figured that they had the power. But eventually, things at SMU spiraled out of control. Bribes, perjury, a university slush find; the team had essentially turned into one of those Dallas boardrooms. After years of allegations and investigations, the NCAA decided to do something about it.

In case you needed any more proof that the NCAA’s grasp on the college game was slipping, they had to call an emergency meeting in 1985 just to reinforce what punishments they were allowed to hand down. This meeting produced what they called the “Repeat Violator Rule”, which was just a fancy new name for the death penalty. It passed easily, with only six schools voting against it. Unsurprisingly, half of those schools were from the Southwest Conference, including SMU.  

In 1987, the NCAA regained control of college sports the only way they knew how: the death penalty. Just like with Kentucky basketball nearly forty years prior, the NCAA shut down the SMU football program in an attempt to assert its control over the member institutions. The school would not be allowed to play at all in 1987, they wouldn’t be able to play any home games in 1988, and they wouldn’t be able to play on television until 1990. As we discussed last week, losing out on the newfound gold mine of TV money was now a major penalty. This, along with drastically reducing their number of available scholarships, killed SMU football. Even though the team was only banned for a single season, it had burned the program to the ground. Without anything to brag about, the boosters stopped donating money to the school altogether, further hamstringing the future of SMU athletics. In fact, they didn’t make a bowl game for a full 22 years after this ruling was handed down. Even though the NCAA claimed that they existed to provide opportunities to “student-athletes”, they torched an entire university just so that they could have one thing: control.

After seeing how the death penalty crippled SMU football, the NCAA has refrained from levying it ever since. They still throw around bowl bans and scholarship reductions like crazy, but they have yet to cancel an entire season as a punishment for paying recruits. However, they’ve never ruled it out. This means that the cloud of a potential death penalty has hung over the heads of every single member school in the years since. They didn’t have to actually sentence another team to the death penalty to put the fear of God into the other schools, they knew it was there. Once again, this is how an organization like the NCAA maintains power. Because once schools start to get a taste of power, the NCAA knows it won’t stop. When a governing body gets its authority from the consent of the governed, fear is the only way to hold on to power.

After laying down the law in such dramatic fashion, the NCAA was able to prevent any more major scandals from breaking. But next week, we’ll look at how the league’s first major incident in over two decades was one of its most damaging.

P.S. For more info on the SMU case, check out the excellent 30 for 30: Pony Excess

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