In 1987, the Southern Methodist University football team received the NCAA’s death penalty, banned from competitive play for a full season. Suspending a program—dubbed the “death penalty”—is the harshest punishment the NCAA can give, and in SMU’s case, the ban came with additional sanctions related to recruiting, scholarships and televised games. The program’s suspension stemmed from recruiting violations and compensating players during the 1980s. The team was eligible for the death penalty under the repeat offender clause, which is reserved for those who commit multiple major violations within five years. Aside from SMU, no other football program has received the death penalty, though many were eligible to receive it.
The true cost of the death penalty is difficult to measure. Numerous studies in sports economics literature find that sports scandals can affect schools both financially and academically. In my recent article, published in the Journal of Sports Economics, I investigate how the death penalty affected both SMU’s football team and finances. Using an econometric technique called the synthetic control method, I estimate what would have happened to SMU had it not received the death penalty and then compare that to reality.
Evidence suggests that SMU’s death penalty even affected other schools in the Southwest Conference, and possibly contributed to the breakup of the conference. Three decades later, it is unclear that SMU has recovered from the lost season when looking at measures of athletic performance. Struggles on the football field led to a reduction in gifts and donations, sports-related revenue and the athletic department’s budget. These findings suggest the death penalty has a long-lasting impact, perhaps much longer than the NCAA ever anticipated, and could explain the NCAA’s hesitancy to enact it again.
Kerianne Lawson is an assistant professor of economics in the Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics at North Dakota State University and a faculty scholar at the Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth.