Commission: Independent probes needed in complex NCAA cases
By AARON BEARD
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) The NCAA is unfit to tackle complex, high-stakes investigations that can linger on for years, and should bring in professional outside enforcement on the biggest cases, a panel tasked with reforming corruption in college basketball concluded Wednesday after a seven-month investigation.
Reform proposals put forth Wednesday by the Commission on College Basketball included the call for a "prompt radical transformation" to an enforcement system that is "broken" and often ill-equipped. Operating amid a federal fraud and bribery investigation into the sport, the commission led by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recommends creating a two-track system that outsources those top-tier cases for independent investigation and resolution, strengthens penalties and clarifies the NCAA's role in policing academic issues.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Rice said it's those major multi-year cases where "the NCAA gets outgunned, people start lawyering up, they stop cooperating.
"And the NCAA is left in a situation where it has responsibility but it doesn't have authority," she said.
Stu Brown, an Atlanta-based attorney who has worked with schools on compliance issues, said the current system built around peer participation from member schools works in most cases.
"I think the notion of more independence and professionalism in the enforcement process is generally a good idea to explore," Brown said, "though I am reminded of the clich�s such as `the devil is in the details' and `the devil you know is sometimes better than the devil you don't.'
"I think there are a lot of unanswered questions and concerns about unintended consequences of going to a new system, particularly doing it so rapidly."
If adopted, stepped-up penalties include a five-year postseason ban with the loss of postseason revenue sharing for Level I violations. It would also allow lifetime bans on show-case orders against individuals and yearlong bans on visits for recruiting violations.
The commission is also pushing "individual accountability," such as requiring contracts for athletics officials to include cooperation with investigations and allow for NCAA discipline up to termination for violations. Meanwhile, college presidents, athletics directors and coaches would certify they have conducted annual "due diligence" to ensure rules compliance.
The commission also wants to improve the NCAA's ability to handle academic cases, an apparent nod to North Carolina's multi-year case that ended in October with the school receiving no penalties for irregular courses featuring significant athlete enrollments.
The infractions panel couldn't conclude there were violations because bylaws leave it to the schools themselves to determine academic fraud. UNC had argued the courses were legitimate - though easy - and benefited non-athletes, too.
"The rules must be amended to allow the NCAA to address all academic fraud and cheating to the extent it is used to corrupt athletic eligibility," the report states. "Member institutions should not be able to shield academic fraud to ensure athletic eligibility by extending that fraud to the entire student body."
In a statement, UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said the school's academic case "showed the many complexities of academic issues" in a "long and exhaustive process."
"We learned a lot, and if asked, we will participate in the discussion examining future academic guidelines," Cunningham said. "Every case is different, and ours was decided by the applicable NCAA bylaws."
WHY IT COULD WORK: While lower-profile cases would continue in the current system, the complex-case structure would essentially replace volunteers with paid professionals such as lawyers, arbitrators or retired judges serving for five years and using arbitration rules in a more efficient and effective operation that avoids allowing cases to drag on for years.
WHY IT WOULDN'T WORK: The commission recommends a start-fresh approach that ignores case precedent to assess penalties with "deterrence in mind," which would create uncertainty. There's also the question of whether member schools will approve the stiffest recommended as well as contractual provisions allowing NCAA discipline to include the termination of officials for violations. And will schools get on board with stronger NCAA academic authority when they've long rejected anything approaching the governing body evaluating the rigor of courses?
WHY IT'S KEY TO THE SCANDAL: Any broad effort to update rules such as agent conduct will require an enforcement system better equipped to handle complex and long-running cases.
Don Jackson, an Alabama-based attorney who has worked on numerous eligibility cases, said he was troubled by many of the report's proposals. But the idea of independent investigating panels wasn't one of them.
"In theory I'm not so troubled by that, and I'll tell you why," Jackson said. "Because the current system doesn't work."
AP College Sports Writer Ralph D. Russo in Indianapolis contributed to this report.
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Updated April 25, 2018