Louisville basketball and unpacking the NCAA’s “death penalty”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 19: Head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals reacts as Quentin Snider
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 19: Head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals reacts as Quentin Snider /

Louisville’s basketball program might receive the NCAA’s “death penalty.” So, what is it and how does it get chosen as a school’s ‘sentence’?

For Louisville fans, the issue is whether their beloved basketball program is going to receive the NCAA’s notorious ‘death penalty.’ Like the NCAA, the ‘death penalty’ is not as simple as it seems.

The NCAA is a league that oversees hundreds of ‘member institutions’ and each member institution operates at the behest of NCAA President Mark Emmert. Emmert, who assumed responsibility over the NCAA in 2010, has never levied the most severe of penalties available to him and the league: the death penalty.

So, what is the death penalty?

The death penalty — as it pertains to collegiate sports, of course — is when the NCAA eliminates a specific member institution or a member institution’s team from being allowed to compete in NCAA contests.

Historically, the death penalty has only been issued to five schools since the 1950’s; and, each program eliminated from NCAA contention was reinstated within two seasons. Most notably, the NCAA used the death penalty against Southern Methodist University’s football program in 1987; most recently, Emmert could have charged Penn State football with the death penalty as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, but opted not to. Louisville basketball is now tasked with attempting to avoid Emmert’s first use of the death penalty.

How does a team ‘earn’ the death penalty?

In 1985, the NCAA passed the “repeat violator” rule. This rule outlines what it would take to earn the death penalty: “if a second major violation occurs at any institution within five years of being placed on probation in the same sport or another sport, that institution can be barred from competing in the sport involved in the second violation for either one or two seasons.” The benefit of adding this rule is that it helps to give schools an understanding of when they could be facing the death penalty as opposed to the penalty being more arbitrary and violation-based.

However, the NCAA also reserves the right to ban a member institution when there are “particularly egregious violations.” This means that the NCAA could, in severe instances where a school ‘lacks institutional control,’ still levy the death penalty.

The death penalty may sound minor, but the implications could be economically dire for a school. Many of the NCAA’s member institutions make a large amount of their revenue from collegiate athletics. If a school’s football or basketball team are banned from competition, the effects could include a loss of revenue from revoked advertising contracts, reputational harm, a dip in merchandise sales, and deleterious effects on recruiting for years to come. In cities where the schools are a major driver of the local economy, this loss of revenue can be even more effectual.

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With the exit of coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich, Louisville might be trying to mitigate any of the damage that has been done. After being penalized earlier in 2017, Louisville would probably fall under the “repeat violator” rule. The NCAA’s judgment on the matter should be forthcoming.

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