It came across the bottom line of Jay Bilas’ TV Thursday night as he tuned into Sportscenter — one of the rare occasions when Cal Poly makes national sports news.
The university known more for its academics than athletic might had been hit with hefty sanctions by the NCAA for overpaying stipends to help student athletes pay for textbooks.
The punishment? It felt more like coaches were caught hand-delivering BMWs to players — that’s how Bilas, a longtime ESPN college basketball analyst, NCAA critic and lawyer, saw it anyway.
Cal Poly could forfeit wins in all sports over a three-and-a-half-year period, including two years of probation going forward.
“I looked into it and thought, “Are you kidding? This is the message we’re sending?’” Bilas told The Tribune in a phone interview Friday.
The NCAA found that 265 students athletes in 18 sports from the 2012-13 academic year to the fall term of 2015 received $800 book stipends and those funds exceeded the actual cost of books in 72 cases by a total of $16,180 — ranging from $5 to $734 per person.
Cal Poly maintains that the violation was an inadvertent error and only 30 athletes were over-awarded an average of $174.57 for books amounting to $5,237.10, saying in a prepared statement Thursday that it self-reported to the NCAA when the error was discovered by the Cal Poly Athletics Compliance staff.
“Cal Poly has cooperated in every way with the NCAA throughout this process that began in 2015,” Cal Poly Athletic Director Don Oberhelman said in the statement. “There was never an intent to violate NCAA rules, and when we discovered the issue, we self-reported it to the NCAA.”
It could cost Cal Poly the 2014 Big West men’s basketball championship that sent the Mustangs to March Madness for the first time in school history, among several other NCAA tournament appearances in other sports.
For Bilas, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime — not even close.
He drew comparisons to recent infractions and corresponding punishments at larger schools in the so-called “Power Five” conferences that include large schools with gigantic athletics budgets.
“(The punishment) should be proportional, and it should be compared to other things, and you should take into account how is this going to be viewed. Because I think reasonable people look at this and think, ‘Are you kidding me?’” he said. “... The “Power Five” conferences ... they basically are professional in every way, shape and form.
“And then we’re going to get our undies in a bunch over books? That strikes any reasonable person, and the NCAA likes to use this word a lot, antithetical to what college sports are all about. Well, this is antithetical to what is reasonable.”
In one of the more egregious recent examples, men’s basketball powerhouse North Carolina escaped punishment by the NCAA for one of the largest academic fraud cases in college sports history where it provided fake classes so student athletes could maintain their eligibility. The NCAA investigated the violations for extra benefits because it didn’t fall under its academic fraud rules, and North Carolina escaped punishment after years of investigations.
“If we really think this was done to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace where Cal Poly was trying to distance itself from its competitors, I don’t believe that’s true,” Bilas said. “... You have North Carolina, and they get nothing. And then Cal Poly is going to vacate every game they’ve played in three and half years? That’s ridiculous. It doesn’t remedy the situation. It doesn’t serve as a deterrent. It doesn’t send a message to other schools. It’s absurd.”
Bilas believes Cal Poly’s mistake wasn’t only the infraction itself but also self-reporting to the NCAA.
“If they had just said, ‘OK, we’re changing the way we do things here and not give this amount for books anymore.’ If they didn’t self-report this, it never would have been an issue and nobody would have cared,” he said. “But it tests the school’s ethics, so they do the ethical thing and morally right thing and report something that is very minor in the grand scheme of things and then they get hit with a bag of hammers by the NCAA.”
Cal Poly has refused multiple attempts by The Tribune to interview Oberhelman or university President Jeffrey Armstrong on the issue, and it remains unclear whether the university will appeal the decision.
The NCAA told The Tribune on Friday that Cal Poly can file an appeal to the Infractions Appeals Committee, which has final say on the matter.
Cal Poly, which has 45 days to provide the NCAA a list of athletes deemed ineligible, said in its statement that it disagreed with the number of students involved, also leaving unanswered how that discrepancy would be resolved.
Bilas doesn’t believe Cal Poly should take it quietly.
“The only thing they really can do is appeal and raise hell about it, and they should,” he said. “They should be livid about this. This is so far outside of the realm of reason, it’s almost unconscionable. What problem in the future is this going to solve? Boy, people better be really careful about books from now on. It’s just so dumb.”