Credit: Kyle Calzia | Mustang News

Ken Allard is a Journalism junior and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.

The NCAA’s 18-month-long investigation into the Cal Poly athletics program came to a close this past Thursday.

After investigating Cal Poly’s self-reported violations regarding their student-athlete book scholarship program, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions — the much-maligned independent administrative body that essentially serves as its judicial branch — ruled that the University had a fundamental misunderstanding of NCAA rules about book stipends.

Here’s what happened: From the 2012-2013 academic year through the 2015 fall quarter, Cal Poly distributed to 265 student-athletes, across 18 sports, an $800 cash stipend for book-related expenses. The University was supposed to disburse financial aid for textbooks that was equal to their cost, with student-athletes providing receipts.

Cal Poly failed to do that.

If the school provides anything more than the cost of books, it’s considered improper financial aid. And if the student-athlete uses that excess financial aid for anything else, it’s considered an “impermissible benefit,” which is a big no-no in the NCAA realm of amateurism. Any athlete who receives an impermissible benefit immediately becomes ineligible, and all events that they participated in may be retroactively affected. The NCAA claims that such benefits could provide some form of recruiting or competitive advantage, so the athlete must be disqualified.

So, that’s what the NCAA chose to do. In addition to Cal Poly’s other penalties — two-year probation and $5,000 fine — the University must vacate all records from the regular season and postseason in which ineligible student-athletes participated.

This could affect several of Cal Poly athletics’ NCAA tournament appearances, including the 2014 Big West Men’s Basketball championship. Furthermore, all individual records of ineligible student-athletes have to be vacated.

These penalties are cruel. They’re disproportionate. They’re absurd. Despite the fact that they fit within the framework of the NCAA’s warped way of doing things, Cal Poly should challenge the NCAA and appeal their decision.

Two years of probation for an institutional failure to monitor makes sense. But vacating all records of ineligible student-athletes and the games they participated in because of some perceived competitive advantage is ridiculous.

Some Cal Poly student-athletes received excess financial aid for textbooks — which ranged from as low as $5 to as high as $734 — and some of it was spent on unrelated items, such as food, rent, utilities and car payments, according to the NCAA.

The only potential competitive advantage from spending leftover cash on food, rent and other obligations is a marginal reduction in anxiety from the hectic, time-constrained life of a Division I college athlete. This wasn’t some offense that affected the integrity of the game or the purity of the outcome; it was an action that almost any college student would have done given similar circumstances.

What were the student-athletes supposed to do? Audit their own financial aid disbursement, which should have been done for them, and send a refund postmarked for the NCAA’s headquarters?

File that under “things that would never happen.”

That’s not even remotely close to a student-athlete’s responsibility, either. It’s the university’s.  

Cal Poly’s athletic department — with guidance from their compliance staff — provides rules education to its coaches, players, and other members so that they properly adhere to NCAA guidelines. Because Cal Poly’s compliance staff misinterpreted the book-stipend rules, the athletic department was working with incomplete or misleading information, which was passed on to the student-athletes. If anyone should be punished, it should be Cal Poly’s compliance staff, not the student-athletes or the athletic department as a whole.

Again, that’s another flaw in the NCAA’s punishment. It affects the wrong people. The point of punishment is to impose a penalty on the transgressor, but vacating records goes after the only innocent individuals in this entire process: The student-athletes.

Cal Poly must appeal. Whitewashing history and rewriting record books is one of the NCAA’s favorite pastimes, so a reversal is unlikely. But there’s honor in standing up for your athletic department and its student-athletes.

If the NCAA denies the appeal, which is likely to happen, it sends a message to Cal Poly and other universities in similar situations that maybe self-reporting potential NCAA violations and cooperating with the organization, as Cal Poly did, isn’t the right path going forward. Maybe the correct path is to let the NCAA do the investigative legwork on their own and challenge them at every corner.

The NCAA relies on self-reporting by athletic departments to keep its system of justice functioning. Like the U.S. criminal justice system, it has limited resources and can be overloaded easily. Anywhere from 90 to 95 percent of criminal cases in the U.S. are settled through plea deals. If people suddenly stopped entering into plea bargains, the entire system would grind to a halt and become critically unstable.

Self-reporting is the NCAA equivalent to a plea deal. Perhaps it’s time universities stop using the NCAA’s own plea bargaining system and instead force them to figure out where their compliance priorities lie until they come up with a fairer system of justice and punishment.

Like the NCAA’s acceptance of Cal Poly’s appeal, that, too, is unlikely to happen — but watching the institution with FIFA-like sleaziness come crumbling down would be something we could all enjoy.

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