NASHVILLE -- In the midst of a traditional kickoff to the college football season at the 2023 SEC Media Days, one uncomfortable truism has emerged: It pays to cheat.
That's at least one of the residual messages from last week's penalties applied to Tennessee football after an NCAA investigation revealed hundreds of violations, 18 of them deemed to be the Level 1 (major) variety. As the Committee on Infractions tends to do in these situations, it loudly admonished the guilty in one of the slimiest cases on record.
This time, it wasn't hyperbole.
"The violations in this case … were egregious and expansive," said Kay Norton, the chief hearing officer and former Northern Colorado president.
The NCAA concluded former coach Jeremy Pruitt and his wife were directly implicated in paying prospects and players a total of five figures. There were 110 impermissible room nights for recruits. That's a lot of Marriott points. The NCAA public infractions report was 80 pages long. That's a novel in the world of wrongdoing.
You also might have noticed Tennessee continues to be among the living in terms of football. It had some scholarships taken away and an $8 million fine -- the largest ever handed out -- levied against it. But no -- repeat no -- postseason ban.
It certainly did not hurt the Volunteers that state attorney general Jonathan Skrmetti threatened to sue the NCAA if it decided to levy a postseason ban against UT.
"Tennessee law prohibits the NCAA from imposing such a sanction, and I will not hesitate to vindicate the rights of UT students to enjoy the full measure of their intercollegiate athletic opportunities. NCAA rules cannot supersede Tennessee law," he wrote the NCAA in a letter obtained by the Knoxville News Sentinel.
If you're confused, you're not alone. In announcing the penalties, Norton herself said the NCAA is "at a crossroads philosophically."
Existing rules say Tennessee probably should have gotten hammered with up to a two-year bowl ban. But recent guidelines suggested by the NCAA Board of Directors -- adopted as part of the new NCAA Constitution -- suggest the innocent (athletes, mostly) shouldn't be punished in such cases. That's noble and fair but also has the infractions process caught in the middle of a four-way intersection.
Norton called it "undefined guidance."
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey remains a member of the Infractions Process Committee that is making some of those recommendations. Sankey couldn't have been blamed for advocating for Tennessee when he attended April's infractions hearing, but it's also fair to ask anyone listening in this penalty transformation after the Tennessee case: Is there any meaningful way left to disincentivize big-time cheating?
"The reality is circumstances and times have changed," Sankey told CBS Sports on Monday. "We had a constitution committee; one of its outputs was, to the greatest extent possible, you don't punish uninvolved individuals. To a certain extent, the NCAA is trying to figure that out."
In the end, Tennessee effectively skated on this one because it showed "exemplary cooperation." Although, in case like this, resistance would be like getting caught with a bag full of marked bills and arguing the bank put them there by mistake.
"Accountability for individuals needs to be a focus," Sankey said. "I also think rewarding leadership when something's detected and responding quickly and making the right decisions [is important, too]."
Therein lies the catch-22. The NCAA is still trying to figure out where that penalty sweet spot lies. Where is exactly is the accountability when a school can bring dozens of recruits in during the COVID-19 dead period and end up relatively unscathed like Tennessee? Arizona State, charged with similar violations under former coach Herm Edwards, must be dancing in the streets. Precedent says the Sun Devils are going to see a similar outcome.
Pruitt was never going to survive this. The cheating was so blatant and sloppy at Tennessee that he might deserve more than the six-year show-cause ban he received. He is effectively done with college coaching for at least that long.
From the outside looking in, Tennessee could find $8 million between the couch cushions. That or a rich donor could write a check. Anything to keep the train rolling under coach Josh Heupel.
There's just an unfairness about the entire outcome. When it comes to wrongdoing, all politics are local. Get rid of all the cheaters! Well, until a case lands on Ol' State U's doorstep, then it's (frequently) blame the messenger (NCAA) rather than look in the mirror.
Much was made of the infractions cases at Missouri and Oklahoma State within the last four years. In both cases, the schools found wrongdoing and promptly reported it to the NCAA. Missouri discovered a part-time tutor writing papers for football players and other athletes. Federal wiretaps caught an Oklahoma State assistant basketball coach offering improper inducements for players to a marketing agency.
Both schools appealed postseason bans. Both appeals were rejected.
Those cases were kind of the last straw in the punishing-the-innocent debate. Now try explaining Tennessee's "penalties" to the administrations at Mizzou and Oklahoma State.
"I think the mistake has been, probably for the last two decades, every time there is a review it's, 'We're as mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore' and we have to have more aggressive penalties,'" Sankey said. "This particular case was decided and released over three years. We need to focus on more timely penalties."
Sankey added: "I don't think you just eliminate the existence of postseason bans. If an institution decides to be obstinate, noncooperative -- particularly the leadership level -- that's when you have to turn the page to a new chapter. …
"There is really nothing left for the NCAA to do. Do we have to be more and more aggressive [with] penalties? That's happened, but it hasn't stopped individual decision making, individual behavior. I think aggressive fines can be entirely appropriate but also accountability [is necessary] for individuals for their actions."
Meanwhile, there's a wide-open hole up the middle for the next major violator to run through. Hey, there's always "exemplary cooperation" to fall back on. Just pick a lane, NCAA.
"The panel urges NCAA members to align active penalty requirements to -- as of now -- undefined guidance, so the application of penalties is fair for all schools," Norton concluded last week.