There May be a New NCAA Sheriff Coming to Town

 

(Editor’s Note.  Parts of this article are based on a story written by Birmingham News reporter, Jon Solomon.  The story appeared on http://al.com).

NCAA executives have discussed for some time now their desire to come up with more consistent and understandable penalties that would create a situation where more people feel that the “time fits the crime.”   Member schools have complained that the process takes too long between the time a school is first notified of an investigation until it receives the letter notifying it of the Committee on Infractions decision.

An NCAA working group recently unveiled preliminary recommendations that would produce clearer penalty guidelines, create four levels of violations, and add at least eight people to the 10-member Division I Committee on Infractions. Changes could happen by August as college sports tries to dig out from a rash of recent high-profile scandals that have occurred over the past 18 months.

“I think we’ve all heard from time to time that the process needs to be faster and more nimble, but we also can’t compromise fairness and integrity,” Julie Roe Lach, the NCAA’s vice president for enforcement, said in an interview last week.

Perhaps the biggest change could be adding more members to the infractions committee so smaller panels handle more cases. This also could create more diversity within the committee, which conducts hearings and hands out penalties.

Roe Lach said past or present university presidents, athletics directors and even coaches could be added to the committee, which right now isn’t represented by any people in those current jobs. The working group has not made any firm decisions yet on recommendations for change.

“We’ve heard from several coaches and others that their perspective would really provide a different angle that is needed,” Roe Lach said.

The idea of having athletic directors and coaches serve on the Committee on Infractions seems a bit like having a fox watch the henhouse.  In just the past two days the public, for instance, has been reading stories about how the recruiting tactics of new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer have angered his Big 10 colleagues.  One head coach went so far as to say that the Big 10 would not tolerate the sleazy tactics used by coaches in the Southeastern Conference.

How long would it take member schools to start howling about penalties handed down by panels that include a coach of a rival school?

More independent members with fewer potential conflicts of interest were considered for the infractions committee, she said. Three out of 10 committee members right now come from the public.

Consideration was given to various ideas, such as using independent arbitrators, federal court judges and juries, and even the Boy Scouts of America’s approach to discipline. The working group decided it wants most of the infractions committee filled with people familiar with NCAA issues and who have a shared responsibility in cleaning up violations, Roe Lach said.

Flexibility would be an important part of the new plan, which would have four levels (most egregious, serious, secondary and minor). Currently, a violation is labeled either secondary or major.

“There’s a whole lot that happens in between there, such as a really serious secondary (violation) that doesn’t feel right to categorize as major,” Roe Lach said.

Penalty guidelines would allow the infractions committee to consider mitigating or aggravating factors to help determine punishments.  That doesn’t really sound like much of change, since a common theme in any discussion of penalties handed down in recent years is whether or not a school cooperated with Enforcement Staff in helping the investigation proceed.  It is commonly believed, for example, that one of the reasons the University of Alabama was hammered so hard back in 2003 was because of its hostile attitude towards investigators and its lack of cooperation.

For instance, CBSSports.com recently reported on a draft of penalty guidelines that showed a significant Level I (most serious) violation could carry a two- or three-year postseason ban, a scholarship reduction of between 37.5 percent and 50 percent, a financial penalty based on the team’s total budget, and a show-cause penalty of five years or more on a coach before he works again. Various factors that haven’t been released yet could reduce or increase penalties.

Roe Lach said there’s no consensus within the working group on reestablishing TV bans and called it “an open issue.” There hasn’t been a TV ban since 1996 because it could impact lucrative conference TV contracts for schools that didn’t commit a violation. In 2008, the infractions committee recommended to the board of directors more use of TV bans.

One can’t help but wonder why member school can’t simply agree that a school being punished can still appear on TV; but must forfeit to the conference involved and to the NCAA its share of TV revenues.  Rather than stating that a team cannot appear on TV for one year simply rule that the school must forfeit all of its TV revenue share from the sport involved for one year.  Could it be that schools really don’t want to create rules that could potentially cost them millions of dollars?

Former infractions committee chairman Gene Marsh said case-by-case discretion will always be used in NCAA cases. But Marsh, who now represents defendants against the NCAA, said predicted outcomes would make it easier for schools and individuals to decide sooner whether to plead guilty or spend money to fight.

The NCAA would like to see more cases settled without hearings.

“That can happen if you’ve got incentives built into the model,” Roe Lach said.

In recent years, the average NCAA investigation has lasted 11 months. More cases have been concluding in four to eight months during the past year, Roe Lach said. The NCAA’s 55-person enforcement staff was restructured last July. The former enforcement director job now focuses solely on football issues.

The NCAA, which lacks subpoena power, spent the past year talking with schools and conferences about quickly involving the enforcement staff when issues arise.

Roe Lach’s speech to coaches: “We would never tell you to disregard an institutional or conference rule if you have to share information. But if you have information of wrongdoing, I would ask we would be part of that first list you would call. In the event we’d be the first call, we’d certainly appreciate it.”

Of course many feel that what really needs to happen is that member schools need to agree on an “NCAA Rules of Evidence” to govern how information is collected and what can and cannot be considered at hearings.  Most importantly, NCAA Enforcement Staff members need to be given what would amount to a power of subpoena.  Members could simply agree that they will comply with requests for information to the best of their abilities (and individuals will also do so as a condition of their eligibility or employment).  Disputes could be settled by a panel of people selected to serve as a kind of procedural court.

With so much money at stake and so much pressure to win, cheating is probably always going to be present in some form.  At least the NCAA is now openly discussing serious reforms to the enforcement process.  Let’s hope that next summer doesn’t bring a series of recommendations that get shot down by the membership as a whole.

 

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