The NCAA—Guilty Until Proven Innocent

 

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is  an organization created by colleges over 100 years ago in an effort to avoid federal government interference amid a growing number of serious injuries related to football.  It was given regulatory powers regarding playing rules, eligibility, championship competitions, etc.  After World War II, as college sports became more popular and television began to look to college sports for programming, the NCAA established, the first comprehensive recruiting rules.

Over the past sixty years the sheer number of rules governing the conduct of NCAA members have multiplied exponentially.  The NCAA now has an expanded enforcement staff, a sort of prosecutor’s office complete with detectives.  It has its own hearings and appeal committees.  It created a staff to regulate the initial eligibility of student-athletes.   It has its own public relations staff.  It has an administrative staff whose members are overseen by a Board of Directors composed of college presidents.

None of this would be possible without the approval of the membership—the colleges and universities themselves.  It is this group that allows the NCAA as a corporate entity to negotiate the lucrative TV contracts for its men’s and women’s basketball championships, as well as the championship tournaments for all sports except for the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) college football championship.

In other words, without the consent of the governed, the NCAA would cease to exist.  Such a structure on the surface seems like a democratic way to conduct business.  The NCAA as a whole has meetings and its sub-groups have meetings.  Votes are taken at those meetings that define the rules and procedures used to govern NCAA sports.

A basic tenet of the American system of government is that judicial bodies enforce laws independently of executive and legislative bodies.   People accused of violating laws have the constitutional right to an initial trial before a jury of peers.  Rules of evidence govern these trials.  People convicted of crimes have extensive rights to appeal.

Anyone who watches the NCAA closely knows that these rights do not exist in the parallel universe of NCAA justice.  In the NCAA world the accused are presumed guilty until proven innocent.  There is no right to a trial by one’s peers governed by strict rules of evidence.  When the University of Alabama football program was hit with severe penalties back in 2003 much of the NCAA’s case involved the use of secret witnesses/informers whose identity was only made known at the very time of the “hearing” before the infractions committee.

In the NCAA world hearsay evidence is perfectly admissible.  In fact the fact-finder who determines what evidence can be admitted and what evidence is barred at infractions hearings works for that same infractions body.  In other words, the judge works in the same department as the prosecutor.

In a U.S. court it is expected that a defendant will present the most aggressive and vigorous defense possible at trial.  In the NCAA world a school that does not “fully cooperate” with the enforcement staff is treated more harshly because of its attempt to provide a defense.  Those at the heart of infractions cases, usually players, coaches or boosters, are not permitted to be present at the actual hearing.  This ensures that they will not be able to present any evidence on their behalf at these hearings.

More than one aggrieved party has compared the NCAA to the Gestapo in Germany between 1933 and 1945.  Such comparisons seem harsh to many; but when facts in enforcement cases are examined one has to wonder at the very least why members allow the NCAA to act as it does.

Let’s look at the case of Todd O’Brien for an example of NCAA behavior.  O’Brien is a 7 foot center who played  basketball for one year at Bucknell, transferred and, after sitting out a year, played two years for St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia.  His playing time diminished in his second season.  He graduated on time and in the summer of 2011 decided to take advantage of an NCAA rule on the books for several years.  Student-athletes who have a year of eligibility left and who have graduated from their first school can transfer and play immediately at a new school that offers a graduate program not available at their first school.

O’Brien and his father say that an assistant coach told them in the summer that St Joe’s had no plans for the young man to play in the regular rotation this season.  O’Brien decided to transfer to UAB (in Birmingham, Alabama) and is enrolled in a master’s program in public administration.

The NCAA rule requires a player to apply for a waiver to be allowed to play immediately.  In the past such transfers have been routinely granted.  In October the NCAA refused to issue the waiver without giving the player or his family a reason.  St. Joe’s officials have refused to comment, citing privacy concerns.  Several media outlets have reported that St. Joe’s coach, Phil Martelli, refused to agree to the waiver because the transfer left his squad with only 9 players on scholarship this season (is that O’Brien’s fault?).

The family filed an appeal in November and there has been no response from the NCAA.  O’Brien practices with the UAB team; but cannot dress out for games.  He likely would have been a starter for the Blazers this season.  The O’Brien family is represented by an attorney; but the problem at this time is that the NCAA has no obligation to hear an appeal and reach a decision within any period of time.  The regular season is now 60% complete.

Another example of the capricious nature of the NCAA is the case of Connecticut freshman men’s basketball player, Ryan Boatright.  Boatright was Mr. Basketball in Illinois last season.  He grew up just outside Chicago in Aurora.  His mother is a single mom who is raising four children.  Last season when Ryan was scheduling visits to schools recruiting him he wanted his mother to accompany him.  Rules do not permit schools to pay travel expenses for anyone other than the prospective athlete.  Reggie Rose is an old family friend who was Ryan’s AAU coach.  Rose is the older brother of Chicago Bulls star, Derrick Rose.  Rose loaned Ryan’s mother the money for airfare.

The NCAA back in September, 2011 announced it was investigating whether Boatright had accepted impermissible benefits.  The University of Connecticut immediately declared him ineligible, a tactic schools take to keep from possibly getting into trouble later for playing a later determined to be ineligible. The NCAA subsequently determined that Boatright did accept impermissible benefits.  He was ordered to sit out six games and his family was ordered to pay $100 per month until the amount of the airfare was repaid.

Ryan Boatright personally violated no rules.  The NCAA said the wrongdoing was on the part of his mother, Tamesha.  In addition to being forced to repay money, the NCAA told Tamesha Boatright to stay away from Reggie Rose.   The NCAA was punishing Boatright for something his mother did, without actually establishing that Reggie Rose was a UConn booster.  The NCAA went further by trying to dictate whom Tamesha Boatright could associate with.

The NCAA found out about the situation when contacted by Tamesha Boatright’s ex-boyfriend, a convicted felon.  Sources have told news outlets that the ex-boyfriend viewed Ryan Boatright as his “meal ticket” and that when the mother broke up with him he vowed to get even.  In court a defense attorney would be able to challenge the ex-boyfriend’s credibility and motives.  Dealing with the NCAA is another matter.

The NCAA was not through with Ryan Boatright.  On Jan. 13 the Connecticut team traveled to South Bend, Indiana to play Notre Dame.  Prior to the game team officials learned that the NCAA had suspended the player for the second time.  The NCAA informed the school that it was still investigating Boatright.  This time they were looking into the circumstances surrounding his mother’s living arrangements–specifically how was she paying for the house she was living in and the car she owned.

Tamesha Boatright finally agreed to an NCAA demand for bank records.  Investigators soon demanded to know the source of some recent deposits.  She told them that family friends had given her some money so that she could give her kids a good Christmas.  Investigators told her they didn’t believe her.  The NCAA apparently believes that money has to be coming to her from an unscrupulous sports agent or from some other unapproved party.

The University of Connecticut felt that it had no choice but to suspend Boatright again.  When a reporter contacted the NCAA for comment a spokesperson replied that the NCAA had not suspended the player so there was nothing to comment on.  The school of course had suspended him because they were afraid of possible future consequences for a program already on NCAA probation for recruiting violations.

The list of incidents goes on.  One basketball team had a team manager suspended because he was a high school friend of a player the school was recruiting.  Another school saw a straight A student declared ineligible because the NCAA Clearinghouse refused to certify Advance Placement courses he took in high school that are not on its approved list.

Anyone looking for consistency here should look elsewhere.  In November, 2010 the NCAA cleared then-Auburn quarterback Cam Newton to play even though his father admitted to trying to solicit improper (and illegal) payments from at least one school for his son’s services.  The NCAA ruled that the player had no knowledge of this and the father was not a registered agent.  In early January, 2012 the NCAA changed its rules in this area to allow a parent to be classified as an agent.

Newton was allowed to lead Auburn to the national championship while he won the Heisman Trophy.  Ryan Boatright may miss almost all of this season under far less egregious circumstances.

Incidentally, St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli is the head of the NCAA’s coaches committee on ethics.  Martelli has still refused to make a public comment on the Todd O’Brien matter.  No one knows when the NCAA will hold a hearing on his appeal of its denial of a waiver for him.  In the NCAA world anyone who comes under the NCAA investigation is presumed guilty and has no right to a speedy trial before a jury of his or her peers.

The NCAA is like a lot of bullies.  It focuses on parties who are not in a position to defend themselves.  Anyone who thinks that cheating in college sports is not rampant at many schools should read the Sports Illustrated article published in its October 15, 2010 edition about the activities of former sports agent, Josh Luchs.  Perhaps the moral of the story is that if you are going to cheat do it on a grand scale.

Read more on this topic by clicking on the following links to a two-part series that reporter Joe Mocera of the New York Times:

 

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