Tennessee and Arizona State open the season under a cloud of suspicion. Might as well make that a thundercloud. Both football programs have been accused of bringing in recruits for visits during the COVID-19 recruiting dead period.
If true, that’s not only an NCAA rules violation but a moral failing. The coaches at the two schools would have made the conscious decision to put their staffs and players, plus the recruits and their families, at a health risk.
In the case of Tennessee, there are 18 Level 1 violations included in the NCAA Notice of Allegations. Former coach Jeremy Pruitt and his wife allegedly pitched in a portion of $60,000 out of their own pockets to bring prospects to Knoxville.
Sooner or later, the NCAA Board of Directors must decide whether any of it matters. The byword of an association whose role is diminishing by the day is “deregulation.” That philosophy was supposed to make things simpler, less complicated.
Eighteen Level 1 violations? Meh. Let someone else worry about it. Perhaps it isn’t going to be the NCAA as the board considers allowing divisions and conferences oversee themselves. But for now, let’s stick to what script exists to follow.
On Wednesday, the NCAA Council is due to recommend to the board measures that would streamline the enforcement process. Where have we heard that before? Innocent athletes have been unfairly impacted — probation, postseason bans — by the sins of their coaches and boosters for decades. It was unfair and it was awful.
I once asked a former member of the infractions committee once why innocent athletes were often punished. He basically answered, Someone has to suffer.
This time, change has to be real because, well, there is little recourse. The courts are closing in on the NCAA. Name, image and likeness legislation led to players hiring managers and agents. Revenue sharing is right around the corner. The NCAA is the process of gracefully stepping off the stage, leaving college athletics to schools, administrators, and yes, those professional influencers.
But the enforcement process supposedly is going to remain in some form, just not like what we’re used to seeing. That’s why the season should begin with high hopes at Tennessee and Arizona State that have little to do with football.
You see, in rewriting and condensing the NCAA Constitution earlier this year, the association went out of its way to state, “penalties imposed … do not punish programs or student-athletes not involved nor implicated in the infractions.”
That’s a mouthful and a riddle that has proved to be unsolvable all these decades. It isn’t fair that athletes at Tennessee and Arizona State would have to suffer. Pruitt and his coaches — those accused of wrongdoing — are long gone. Arizona State has dispatched assistants in a similar manner while awaiting its Notice of Allegations.
If the deregulation philosophy holds and that rewritten constitution stays firm, neither program may suffer meaningful penalties. In other words: no postseason bans. We have become so conditioned to the enforcement end game, that’s all that matters.
“In the constitution, now the goal is avoiding penalizing student-athletes for the sins of the past. You bring up a good point,” said a person involved in the deregulation process who was asked how those programs could be penalized.
It’s a matter of timing for that board. If they address enforcement in a meaningful way, it comes down to when that new model will be implemented. Then, it would be a decision whether the board decides to institute those new rules retroactively. That could happen.
Tennessee and Arizona State — both accused of massive wrongdoing — would not suffer the worst penalties. More to the point, the athletes who had nothing to do with that massive wrongdoing would be spared as well.
“The question you’re asking will really be based on what is the effective date of those recommendations,” said Julie Roe Lach, once-head of NCAA enforcement now serving as Horizon League commissioner. “If the recommendations pass that says no penalties against athletes who weren’t involved, which basically to me means [you] can’t include postseason opportunities, right? If that passes, then the question is, does it affect all cases processed from that date forward? Or violations occurring [in the past]? It’s been handled both ways in the past.”
Roe Lach was fired nine years ago by the NCAA, but many saw her as a scapegoat in a botched football investigation into Miami. She remains widely respected to this day having worked at the NCAA for more than 15 years.
“My knowledge is now old,” Roe Lach admitted. “We used to — whenever we would implement changes — if they were more permissive or generous then you make them effective from that moment. … In this case, based on that kind of lens, I would say it would be permissive or more generous. You would say any penalties applied from this day forward. That’s how I would interpret it, but no one has asked my opinion.”
Tennessee and Arizona State, then, could be test cases of what deregulation and the new NCAA will look like. A task that was supposed to be completed by Aug. 1 now, in some cases, has a timeline of early 2023. For a while, all new legislation has been filtered through the Transformation Committee, one of the most powerful NCAA bodies ever assembled.
They’re the ones supposed to clean it up. They’re the ones supposed to establish minimum standards for membership and governance. But it will be up to the board to approve it. The 24-person body comprised of NCAA presidents and chancellors will have to decide whether there is a meaningful NCAA in the future.
There are options. Those major cases could be mitigated if family members and friends — folks not compelled to speak to the NCAA — are “incentivized” to cooperate in infractions cases. Only cases involving the “the most significant behaviors” could be heard. Fines could be involved. Coaches could be handed show-cause orders that render them forever unhireable.
The penalties incurred by schools could follow those guilty coaches to whatever jobs they may take in the future.
That shame of the enforcement process remains, the punishment of innocent athletes. Remember those USC players left to suffer crippling penalties in 2010 after Reggie Bush had left and the NCAA had its way? The innocent Ole Miss players who were left to suffer a two-year bowl ban in 2017 despite their coach, Hugh Freeze, resigning?
Deregulation, through that new constitution, is supposed to find justice for those players.
The entire process is turning into a Gordian Knot. What if Tennessee athletes skip a bowl ban in the middle of a case while their peers at another school are experiencing one?
Among the proposals considered was the NCAA president applying penalties himself if schools didn’t cooperate. Thankfully, that one did not have traction. In May, the Board of Directors Infractions Process Committee discussed imposing financial penalties if an appeal fails. Also, penalties could also be increased during an appeal.
These are concepts, malleable trial balloons. But as mentioned, something concrete must come out of it. The NCAA got in this situation because it allowed a rulebook to bloat, and now, admittedly, it doesn’t have enough staff to keep up. The point was to untie the Gordian knot.
That’s the idea of deregulation: making meaningful change. NCAA enforcement recently circulated a letter to the membership saying the staff “needs help.”
“Meting out penalties becomes very tough because you do want to be fair,” Roe Lach emphasized.
That would be a good place to start with deregulation.