There's probably no organization this side of the Syrian government that is more reviled than the NCAA. Supposedly entrusted with safeguarding the purity of amatuerism in college sports, the NCAA has established a reputation for punishing jaywalkers while letting axe murderers go free. Here in Los Angeles the greatest venom against the NCAA comes from USC fans, incensed over the harsh penalties levied against their football program in connection with the Reggie Bush scandal. While not particularly sympathetic to USC's plight since there was a clear issue of institutional control, I do see an injustice when looking at the NCAA's treatment of Auburn in the Cam Newton affair and the $200,000 payoff to Newton's dad, though I hope that the NCAA will eventually levy sanctions there. Of course, USC may have gotten away with something with the Joe McKnight situation and who knows what else might be out there at USC, or for that matter, any other school.
What clearly is ludicrous is the fact that the NCAA has penalized Caltech for using "ineligible" athletes on its sports teams. Now Caltech is the epitome of amateurism in college athletics. Not only are there no scholarship athletes at Caltech, but many of its sports teams have participants who did not compete in sports at the high school level. Or putting it another way, Caltech's teams are inferior to many high school teams, or even intramural teams at large universities like UCLA and USC. When Caltech's basketball team broke a 26 year conference losing streak, it made national news. This is truly an amateur college sports program.
So what is the specific violation of NCAA rules by Caltech that led the NCAA to put Caltech on three year probation? Well the NCAA requires that to participate in intercollegiate sports, team members must be enrolled in a minimum number of units and be on track to make minimum progress towards their degree. This requirement is fair enough, as it prevents schools from "hiring" paid athletes who really aren't students to participate on their teams. So what is Caltech's transgression? Well, Caltech has a policy of permitting its students to audit a class for up to three weeks at the start of the school term before actually registering for the class. Clearly, this is not part of a plot to beef up its sport teams with ringers, but to give its students flexibility in deciding what classes to take. Well this results in some student athletes in failing to meet the NCAA minimum credit requirement, so Caltech goes to NCAA jail for three years. The fact that enrolling in 8 units at Caltech is probably multiple times more demanding than taking 15 units at Auburn is totally irrelevant to the NCAA.
Of course in this case, NCAA sanctions against Caltech might be a badge of honor for a school whose previous top athletic highlight was probably messing up the card stunts and scoreboard at the January 1 Rose Bowl game. Also the NCAA recruiting sanctions don't affect Caltech, which doesn't recruit athletes, and it has no wins to forfeit. But still, Caltech self-reported these "violations", an act which often is sufficient for the NCAA not to impose sanctions. So the NCAA seems to have gone out of its way to levy three years worth of irrelevant sanctions against the Beavers, for reasons known only to that Byzantine body.
And while we're on the subject of the NCAA, it will be interesting to see what comes of the NCAA investigation of the football program at Penn State in light of the Sandusky scandal. On the one hand a good case can be made for severe sanctions against Penn State given the concealment by the top levels of Penn State's school and athletic administration. On the other hand, with the NCAA's reputation for at times being a big bully, do college sport fans really want to see the NCAA expand the list of things they might get you for?