Old Dominion, The NCAA, And Equality Of Outcome

Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody should be surprised when the NCAA rulings vary from precedent, because it's intentional.

Comes now everybody and their brother to bemoan the fate of Old Dominion's Donte Hill. This story was linked by Greg earlier, so most of you may be familiar with it. But in case you're not, here it is again:

Hill played eight minutes in a closed scrimmage for Clemson in 2010 before deciding to transfer to ODU. This wasn't a game, or even something like Big Blue Madness, but because he met the NCAA rules definition of competing, he technically lost his whole year of eligibility.

So naturally, he petitioned the NCAA for his year of eligibility back. Today, the NCAA denied his appeal setting off a firestorm of outrage. Here is the lamentation of ESPN's Myron Medcalf:

The NCAA is hot and cold when it comes to rulings. Former Missouri guard Michael Dixon hopes to play next season for Memphis after missing a year of competition because of a sexual assault investigation. Dez Wells, who dealt with a similar situation at Xavier, was allowed to compete immediately for Maryland last season after he left his former program.

Dixon and Wells were not charged in their respective cases.

But their situations were far more serious than Hill’s scenario.

He played in a closed scrimmage for eight minutes. And now, he can’t play next season, which should be his senior campaign.

It just doesn’t make sense.

But that’s the norm with the NCAA.

Jeff Eisenberg writes a similar, but far less strident complaint at Yahoo!, and notes that Notre Dame's Tim Abromitis had most of his eligibility restored by the NCAA after a similar incident last year:

That the NCAA chose a strict interpretation of the rule is a bit surprising both because of the severity of the penalty and because of the precedent it has previously set. In 2011, the NCAA chose not to take a full year of eligibility from Notre Dame's Tim Abromaitis for playing in two exhibition games during a redshirt year, opting instead to more justly punish him with a four-game suspension to start his senior season.

First of all, let me say that I agree this is an unfortunate outcome, but let's be honest, the NCAA has warned us over and over again that precedents are not operative as such, and that each case is unique and essentially considered in the legal doctrine of de novo, which is the Latin for "anew" or "all over again." They may decide, or not, to consider each case in isolation from other similar cases. Consider this quote from the Infractions Appeals Committee regarding Southern Cal's appeal back in 2011:

"The guidance provided by prior decisions is, and always has been, a matter of judgment," the IAC wrote in its report. "In this case, we cannot say that the Committee on Infractions improperly exercised that judgment."

This fact leads to the biggest complaint people have about the NCAA; inconsistency of outcome. Everyone thinks they should be able to predict, from prior cases, how the NCAA will rule, but the NCAA has repeatedly rejected this approach, preferring to essentially decide whether or not to consider precedent on the fly, not as a matter of procedure.

Here's the thing, though; the NCAA is a voluntary association of hundreds of schools. All it would take is for the membership to change the rules, and the bylaws, to require the enforcement arm to consider similar precedent cases in such appeals, and even in original rulings. The membership has not done so, and don't appear to be considering it.

Not only that, as the personnel in the enforcement division change, this laissez-faire treatment of precedent never seems to change. Apparently, it is a matter of policy.

What the NCAA has done here is completely consistent with what they always do -- they look at each case de novo, sometimes looking to similar precedent cases for guidance, and sometimes not.

Inconsistency is currently built into their process, and they are consistently applying that process despite the perceived inequality of outcome. Is it unfair? I, like most of you, would rather see them apply their previous rulings in making new rulings, and make going outside precedent the exception rather than the rule. But for whatever reason, the NCAA rejects that approach, and apparently has no intention of changing it.

You can accuse the NCAA of anything you want to, but the bottom line is, strict enforcement of their rules is not really blameworthy. We may all agree that it produces problematic results when they don't consider precedent, but this is something they've been very candid and up front about, and the membership, in sum, seems to be fine with it. As the membership sets the rules, that's the appropriate place to assign the blame, in my view.

In the final analysis, the harm here is much smaller than most make it out to be. Hill is going to get his college degree and was never likely to be a professional player. Yes, it is frustrating for him, but the damage done, in my opinion, is negligible. Life goes on, and now he can get on with his. Are the coach, school, and fans inconvenienced? Sure. So ODU should lobby their peers to change the rules, right? Again, sure.

But they won't.

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