It’s September, and in the South that means one thing: college football. One might not immediately associate college football with sentencing reform, but a recent issue shows how lawmakers can learn from the gridiron.
You may also have seen the story about several University of Miami players who were recently suspended for violating the same rule. According to an investigative report by Yahoo Sports, accused Ponzi-schemer and former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro gave dozens of Miami recruits cash, food, and alcohol, threw parties for them on his yacht and even paid for players to visit strip clubs and prostitutes during their visits to “The U.” Or maybe you remember last year’s story about Ohio State players trading memorabilia for tattoos, which led to the resignation of Ohio State Head Football Coach Jim Tressel.
While he technically violated the same NCAA rule as the Miami and Ohio State players, Sharrif Floyd’s experience was much different. In his response to the suspension, University of Florida Head Football Coach Will Muschamp highlighted the distinctions:
Sharrif is what is good about college athletics – his life is about survival, struggle, disappointment and adversity. I have recruited kids that did not know where they would sleep that night or what they would eat. Growing up, Sharrif was one these kids. Sharrif’s life is also about triumph, honesty, integrity, determination, perseverance and character. …Florida’s Athletic Director, Jeremy Foley, added:
I want to make it clear that this issue is not about sports agents, Florida boosters or his recruitment to Florida or anywhere else. The issue is about his survival and the only reason the NCAA, the SEC and the University of Florida were aware of these issues is because Sharrif brought them to our attention last February. He came forward because, as I said before, he is honest and because of his integrity.
Sharrif grew up in an environment where he didn't have the things most of us take for granted -- food, shelter and clothing. In the absence of parents, there were kind people, in no way affiliated with the University of Florida, who were not boosters or sports agents, that helped him along the way to provide those things that he would otherwise not have had.Unlike the Miami recruits who partied in South Beach, Floyd accepted about $2,700 in cash over several months from the “Student Athlete Mentoring Foundation,” a nonprofit charity group that provides “support to high school student-athletes in their academic and athletic endeavors.” However, Floyd did technically violate an NCAA rule, and under the rule, Floyd could have been suspended up to four games. But based on Floyd's financial hardship and other mitigating circumstances, the penalty was reduced to two.
On the reduced penalty, Kevin Lennon, the NCAA's vice president of academic and membership affairs, said, "We examine each situation carefully and consider all elements related to a student-athlete's individual circumstances and the violation. This gives us the flexibility to tailor the conditions of reinstatement that take into account all details and are in the best interest of the involved student-athlete."
While Muschamp, Foley and Florida fans agree that suspending Floyd for even two games was too severe (the suspension is subject to appeal), lawmakers should learn from how the NCAA responded to this case. Faced with violations of the same rule, the NCAA recognized that the individual circumstances of Floyd’s case merited a different penalty than that given to Miami and Ohio State players.
Imagine if the NCAA had a “mandatory minimum” four-game suspension for violations of the “no benefit” rule. While it might deter some of the activity that took place at Miami and Ohio State, the NCAA would not be able to factor in relevant information like a player’s background, the source of the illegal benefits, the uses to which money was put, etc. in determining a proper punishment. Players like Floyd would have to serve the same sentence as even the most notorious, intentional offenders.
Similarly, mandatory minimum sentences tie judges’ hands, providing one-size-fits-all punishments that ignore legitimate distinctions among defendants and result all too often in injustices. A better option? Repeal mandatory sentences and restore individualized justice; let the punishment fit the crime and the offender.
If the NCAA can get something right, surely lawmakers can, too.
-- Gregory Newburn, Florida Project Director, FAMM