INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Rule-breakers beware. The NCAA is now holding everyone more accountable with harsher punishments.
More than a year after hammering Penn State for Jerry Sandusky's crimes and nearly six months after shaking up the enforcement division because of a self-inflicted scandal, the governing body cast aside its outdated two-tiered penalty structure and deliberative hearing process in favor of new policies that could result in the suspension of coaches and more consistent punishments for major infractions.
The new rules, approved in October, officially took effect Thursday.
"I think they've certainly changed the equation a lot," NCAA President Mark Emmert told The Associated Press. "So those doing risk-reward analysis, we've just upped the ante on risk, and I think that will have a material impact on people's behavior."
Emmert called for tougher measures to go into effect two years ago during a presidential summit in Indianapolis. Now that they're finally on the books, the embattled Emmert has a rare victory in what has been one of the toughest years in NCAA history.
From the announcement of rogue staffers violating the organization's own policies to the continual critiques about how Emmert runs the NCAA to concerns about low morale inside the Indianapolis headquarters, everything has been a target. There are court cases, complaints from conference commissioners, debates over whether big-budget and small-budget schools can co-exist in the same division, and calls for Emmert's resignation.
Amid all that, many of the attempts to reform college sports have fizzled, including a $2,000 stipend for athletes that Emmert champions. The board of directors passed that measure in the fall of 2011 only to have it stopped by opposition from smaller schools, many of whom complained they couldn't afford it.
But getting tough on cheaters is something most college leaders have rallied around.
College fans will see a noticeable difference in the way cases are handled.
Instead of categorizing infractions as major or secondary, there will now be four categories. Punishments will be reduced or toughened based on whether there are mitigating or aggravating circumstances. Teams or schools found to be in "serious breach of conduct" with aggravating circumstances could face severe penalties, if not those approaching Penn State's unprecedented sanctions (four-year postseason ban and a $60 million fine).
Head coaches will find themselves under more scrutiny. By changing the burden from "presumption of knowledge" to "presumption of responsibility," head coaches could now be suspended for up to one full season if any member of their staff commits a serious rules infraction.
The changes will not affect cases that have already been heard, such as the pending case against the University of Miami, and schools that are found to have committed infractions before the board's vote on Oct. 30 will be processed under the new structure but will face penalties under the previous structure. Infractions that occurred after Oct. 30 or both before and after will face the new punishments.
"It's insufficient to say, 'I didn't have any idea of what's going on here,'" Emmert said. "When you think about the people at the highest level and who impact this the most, it's the people who are most directly involved. So the coaches have a responsibility to set the tone in that room on a daily basis and if they are not, then they will be held accountable."
The infractions committee will look different, too.
The NCAA has already increased the number of committee members from 10 to 18 and could add up to six more. Emmert and the board believes that will split the workload, allow smaller groups to conduct roughly twice as many hearings each year and expedite a decision-making process that has long been criticized as being far too slow.
For the first time, former college coaches, such as Lloyd Carr and Bobby Cremins, and former university presidents, such as Michael Adams and Carol Cartwright, will hear cases, ask questions and make decisions, too.
"There's going to be people on the committee that know and understand college sports," Emmert said. "It's a thankless job, but with this structure we will get new and varied voices in the process."
The NCAA is still facing a number of challenges, including a closely watched federal lawsuit in California many believe could change college sports.
On Wednesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said video game maker Electronic Arts can be sued by college players who claim the company unfairly used their images without compensation. The lawsuit argues for class action status to represent all current and former players and has been combined with a similar suit filed by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon against the NCAA.
"The main thing is that this takes away their principal defense and leaves them with, what I think, is a pretty weak defense," said Rob Carey, a partner at the law firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro in Seattle, a firm that represents the players. "They know what it is and they pretended it was like this little narrow thing, and I don't think a jury will react well to that."
Emmert declined to talk specifically about the lawsuit or Wednesday's ruling, though he did say losing in the courts would have a "dramatic impact" on college athletics.
Carey and Emmert both said there have been no discussions yet about a potential settlement. Carey does not believe the case will reach the courtroom before 2015.
Over the past few weeks, several power-conference commissioners complained about NCAA governance. Emmert has spent the summer talking with those commissioners, and acknowledges changes need to be made.
Potential solutions are to be discussed at next week's board of directors meeting, though Emmert does not expect a vote on any changes until at least next August. He has also called for a January summit.
"There's an interest from the board to see some seriousness of intent and that they're really going to move on governance reform," Emmert said. "We have many different segments that are frustrated with the current environment. It needs to be done with some speed, but you've got to have some voices in it. You've got to find ways to reach out, get a lot of opinions and get people together."
Much like the NCAA did on the enforcement changes that are now in effect.
"Will they be perfect right out of the box. No, of course not, I'm sure they'll have to be tweaked or be adjusted," Emmert said. "No one believes we have found the perfect model, but everyone believes it's a significant move in the right direction."