Strategic Interaction in a Repeated Game: Evidence from NCAA Football Recruiting


We analyze decisions to comply or cheat on NCAA recruiting regulations in the context of repeated interactions. Teams possess private information about resources devoted to football programs, recruiting effort made by rival programs, and rival program behavior. We test for evidence that the behavior of NCAA Division IA football programs conforms to predictions from repeated game theoretic models using panel data from IA football over the period 1978–2005. We find anecdotal and empirical support for strategic interaction. The presence of in-conference rivals under NCAA sanctions increases the probability of a team being placed under future sanctions.

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  1. 1.

    NCAA regulations restrict athletes to 4 years of competition, except in exceptional circumstances. NCAA student athletes can practice for one season without appearing in contests—a process that is called “red shirting”—so athletes often spend 5 years attending the college or university with which they sign.

  2. 2.

    It is worth noting that member institutions compete vigorously on the coaching component of the input market where there are no agreements about the compensation packages that can be offered to the coaching staff.

  3. 3.

    The 2014–2015 football post-season featured the first ever College Football Playoff. The total payout to the Power Five conferences was: $83.5 million to the ACC; $58 million to the Big 12; $60 million to the Big Ten; $60 million to the Pac-12; and $87.5 million to the SEC.

  4. 4.

    The NCAA penalty cancelled only all SMU home games, in 1988 but the university shut down the football program for the entire 1988 season.

  5. 5.

    This is a simplification of the process. From 1992 through 2013 a group of post-season bowl games called the Bowl Championship Series Series (BCS) matched the highest ranked teams at the end of the season in a group of high profile bowl games. The winner of one of these games was crowned the “National Champion”; however, this is was not a post-season tournament. The BCS was replaced with a four-team playoff in 2014.

  6. 6.

    The ACC, Big 10, Big 12, PAC 10/12, and SEC, and their immediate predecessors, the Big 8, SWC, and Big East.


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We thank Roger Blair, Lawrence White, and participants at The NCAA Cartel Symposium held at the University of Florida in February 2017 for valuable comments on this paper.

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Correspondence to Jane E. Ruseski.

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Humphreys, B.R., Ruseski, J.E. Strategic Interaction in a Repeated Game: Evidence from NCAA Football Recruiting. Rev Ind Organ 52, 283–303 (2018).

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  • NCAA
  • Recruiting
  • Strategic interaction

JEL Classification

  • Z22
  • Z28