A guide to the Five Stages of Infractions Grief

by | CBSSports.com

One of the greatest things about social networking sites such as Twitter is the interaction it provides between writers such as myself -- only plug, I swear -- and fans. It has been quite fun to get to know what fans are feeling and thinking, from the ACC to the SEC to the WAC.

The most fun I have, however, is when there's a news story involving an NCAA infraction. USC. North Carolina. Tennessee. Auburn. Ohio State. Oregon.

That, I would argue, is when it's really fun to open up Tweetdeck and see what shows up in my timeline and what rolls in on my mentions feed.

More on NCAA investigations
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CBSSports.com is taking a long look at cheating in college football in a series of stories. To date, we have run the following:

  How hard is it to win without cheating?

  What teams cheat the most?

  Does a major violation actually mean you'll win more?

It has been a fascinating look at the game, but what struck me the other day -- and this is where Twitter comes in -- is how just about every fan base takes the news that their team, yes their team, got caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Though I didn't take any psychology classes in college, I did pay attention enough to recognize something I felt was vaguely familiar: The Kübler-Ross model.

Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. You probably know them better by their more common name of "The Five Stages of Grief."

After going back and forth with so many people over the Internet the past several years, I came to see that college football fans, just as people reacting to the sudden death of a loved one, went through each of the five stages upon realizing that their program would eventually be headed for the NCAA's Committed on Infractions.

My colleague Andy Staples over at SI.com felt it necessary to provide "a public service" to dishonest coaches everywhere a few weeks ago with an NCAA Cheating for Dummies handbook. Because I'm a man of the people, I wanted help the fans through what can be a traumatic experience: going through a major violation at your school. So, without further ado: The Five Stages of NCAA Infractions Grief.

Lache Seastrunk could be the most costly recruit in Oregon history. (US Presswire)  
Lache Seastrunk could be the most costly recruit in Oregon history. (US Presswire)  
1. Denial

This is probably the longest stage of grief and the first to pop up. Usually a story breaks with damning evidence that a school or a coach committed serious violations. More often than not, it's a story from my former colleagues at Yahoo! Sports and college football angels of death, Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel. All the stories from them and others are meticulously reported, fact-checked, run through several layers of lawyers and solid enough to run that many are willing to risk their journalistic reputations on it. Bottom line is they've got your program in some very hot water and, more often than not, it means a few members of the NCAA enforcement staff will be on campus within 48-72 hours.

Typical responses from fans: "This isn't happening." "It's not true." "We were not doing this." "We're clean." "So what?" And in some parts of the country, "Nuh-uh."

What it means: There is always the initial shock and in the age of the Internet, often time to prepare for a news story to come out. Almost immediately, fans will lose any connection to reality and like a turtle crawling into its shell, will retreat to the safety of denial. Facts, witness statements and records are not evidence against your program, but rather fabrications. Fans typically put on their (insert bowl here) T-shirt and head to the game room to watch highlights of the pummeling of an opposing team. Usually this lasts until the NCAA delivers a formal Notice of Inquiry or it becomes clear there will be one shortly.

Fan base in this stage: Oregon. Let's face it, the NCAA can interpret their bylaws how they see fit and it's unlikely they like the fact that the Ducks -- and Chip Kelly -- approved $25,000 for a recruiting package that had far less information than Rivals provided for $9.95 a month. Keep thinking that you're good being in a "gray area" with the bylaws, but in the end, the NCAA gets to decide what's black and what's white.

Cam Newton brought titles, glory and NCAA scrutiny to Auburn. (US Presswire)  
Cam Newton brought titles, glory and NCAA scrutiny to Auburn. (US Presswire)  
2. Anger

Perhaps the best stage to observe from afar, this is where fan bases turn on the media. With the rise of blogs, it has been fascinating to see fans pick apart stories line-by-line in the hope of finding mistakes, figuring out bias on behalf of the writers or even accusing a rival school of being behind it all. The absolute best is when the local media starts to dig into a school and then they get thrown into the lot of organizations who are only coming after a school because they were successful.

Typical responses from fans: "They're out to get us." "It's not fair!" "It's all the media's fault!" And "This can't happen to us."

What it means: Though there is a little bit of denial, fans have at least moved on and recognized that their program probably did something wrong (but it's nothing like what the media has described). As a wise, green Star Wars character once said, "Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." Such is the case when a school commits a major NCAA infraction.

Fan bases in this stage: Auburn. Say something about Cam Newton on Finebaum then sit back, listen and you'll understand. Plenty of Ohio State fans are still hovering in the anger stage.

Terrelle Pryor's final game will not be recalled for OSU's victory. (US Presswire)  
Terrelle Pryor's final game will not be recalled for OSU's victory. (US Presswire)  
3. Bargaining

While the diehards and last holdouts will do what they can to skip this stage, most rational fans will move onto the bargaining stage with some regret. This typically is the "beg for forgiveness stage" and where people try and talk themselves into anything that can starve off severe NCAA sanctions.

Typical responses from fans: "Things were not that bad." "We'll be fine no matter what." "All in." "The program will survive." And "The self-sanctions will be enough to please the Committee on Infractions."

What it means: This is when universities and their fans buy into the fact that they've been caught but now they're reformed and will never cheat again. This is when you hear school presidents trumpet the fact that they're adding several compliance officers and that they're changing their practices. Sometimes there's self-sanctions in the form of a few scholarships lost or the head coach starts collecting unemployment benefits. What it all comes down to is the chance to keep playing at a high level in exchange for getting off light for their infractions by saying they've changed.

Fan bases in this stage: Ohio State, North Carolina. With both programs set to appear before the COI in the next couple of months, the fans of these teams are starting to talk themselves into the fact that things can't be that bad. Buckeyes fans will point to the fact that Jim Tressel is gone and that he was responsible for the major infractions while ignoring the fact that several players played a full season while ineligible. Tar Heels fans also will point to the fact that the ineligible players are gone and the assistant coach has been fired while ignoring the fact that the head coach knew the assistant coach for decades and there was an academic scandal on top of everything. As one North Carolina fan reasoned to me, "We had a bowl ban under John Bunting, what's two more years of it?"

Years after leaving, Lane Kiffin remains a whipping boy in Knoxville. (US Presswire)  
Years after leaving, Lane Kiffin remains a whipping boy in Knoxville. (US Presswire)  
4. Depression

This is usually when a school has had its COI hearing and the long, drawn-out, agonizing wait for a ruling begins. Fans tend to realize that they'll receive some sort of sanctions that will very likely hurt the program for the next couple of years. The really tough part about getting through this stage comes from the ridicule fans take from rivals and from the media speculating on what kind of penalties the school will receive. Fans understand that it's coming, but that doesn't make it any easier to take.

Typical responses from fans: "Why bother?" "Who cares?" And "I'm still a diehard fan no matter what."

What it means: Fans realize that their program will be set back and that wins -- at least for a while -- will be much harder to come by. There's a bit of a separation between the program and the pride fans once had for it. Some fair-weather fans will likely move to pro sports (if they're not locked out). The passion some once had for a team is simply no longer there despite all of the good memories.

Fan base in this stage: Tennessee. The Volunteers had a good run under Bruce Pearl, who transformed a school known as a women's basketball power into a not-too-shabby men's program. Most fans recognize that it's a new era in Knoxville with the turnover at football, men's basketball and the athletic director positions. They still don't mind wondering what could have been and the good news is that they can continue to take shots at Lane Kiffin to help cheer them up.

It hasn't been all roses for Reggie Bush and USC since his departure. (US Presswire)  
It hasn't been all roses for Reggie Bush and USC since his departure. (US Presswire)  
5. Acceptance

This is the toughest stage to move into and rightfully so. It's just plain hard to accept the facts and accept the punishment that has been doled out. It stinks. But once the process has run its course, there's just not much a school can do about it. With the infractions appeals process limited in scope and success, acceptance is happening sooner rather than later for many college football followers.

Typical responses from fans: "Don't worry." "We'll be fine." "It will be OK." And "Can't wait until next year."

What it means: There will be plenty of fans that simply don't make it to this stage. They'll fight to avoid acceptance for years. But eventually it will come and fans will learn that it will be alright for their beloved program. Coming to terms with the aftermath is tough but marks the beginning of the end of the infractions process. Moving on is a hard but necessary step to put things like an infractions case behind them.

Fan base in this stage: Southern California. The Trojans were given the worst sanctions since SMU's death penalty. With athletic director Pat Haden confirming that the school will not pursue legal options following the denial of their appeal, USC fans have started to look to the future. It's no longer about what "they" (the NCAA) did but rather what will happen this upcoming season or -- perhaps more importantly -- what will happen when the sanctions are gone.

It's a long road. It's a tough road. But it's a road that just about every fan in some form or fashion will take. The grief process is a painful one but don't worry, there are plenty of other fans that are going through much the same thing you are. If there's one thing to take away from the CBSSports.com look at cheating in college football, it's that more often than not, programs come back stronger than ever following some trouble with the NCAA.

Besides, look over there at (insert program here), they're doing far worse things than what happened at your school. Bet you can't wait for them to get hammered.


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