The SMU “Death Penalty”

No, this is not the death penalty you are thinking of. The “Death Penalty” (as it is called) is a special name given to the right for the NCAA to ban a school from competitng in a sport for a whole calendar year. This is the harshest punishment that the NCAA can lay down. It has rarely been implemented as a punishment but the most famous occasion of this was went it was used on the SMU Mustangs football team in 1986, when the NCAA cancelled their entire 1987 season. This article will take a look at the scandal that caused this “death penalty”, the future repercussions experienced by the program and more.

As I’m sure you are aware, NCAA schools do not pay their athletes like teams in professional sports do. Now, whether this is right or wrong is up in the air and has been debated for decades, but that is not the point. There have been instances of certain players receiving some kinds of payments or gifts, but these rarely get a ton of news because they are usually short lived examples or small in scale, but not the situation surrounding the SMU Mustangs football team.

(source: themajors.net)

(source: themajors.net)

Now, being a smaller school with not the same appeal as some of the bigger ones, the team resorted to some “less than ethical ways” of recruiting players. There was a laundry list of NCAA violations that the team committed but the absolute biggest way the fact that the team had a “slush fund” in which they used the money to pay players under the table. Not only was this a one of two year thing, it was eventually revealed in an investigation that this had been going on from 1970 all the way up to 1986.

As a result of all of these major violations over the years, the NCAA did what most people were expecting and handed down the death penalty on the 1987 season for the Mustangs. In addition to canceling the season, there were numerous other recruitment, scholarships and more. This meant that all players had the choice to switch to other schools, which many did. As a result of this, SMU cancelled the 1988 season as well as they didn’t think they could field a viable team.

(source: abridgeme.com)

(source: abridgeme.com)

The aftermath of this punishment was harsh as it basically left the SMU football team in shambles. Before the punishment they were actually a pretty solid team and had a undefeated season in 1982 and were one of the best teams in the nation in the early 1980’s (likely as a result of the fact they paid some of their players). However, after the punishment was handed down, they only had one winning season over the next two decades and didn’t make it back into their first bowl game until 2009. This remains the only time the NCAA has cancelled a football teams entire season and will go down as one of the biggest punishments in college sports history.

 


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