Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey hasn’t just seen how the NCAA’s infractions sausage is made—he’s been one of the chefs. Sankey spent nine years on the Committee on Infractions, including three as its chair. He was involved in a plethora of major cases.
After that tour of duty, then observing the NCAA’s ponderous efforts to act on the federal investigation of college basketball corruption, Sankey has come to this conclusion: It’s not working, and it’s time to blow up many parts of the infractions process.
Last week, Sankey sent a six-page letter to NCAA leadership that was obtained by Sports Illustrated. In the letter, Sankey asserts that the association is verging on a “crisis of confidence” with member schools and the public at large, due its handling of violations, investigations and sanctions. The letter accompanies a document reviewing a recent NCAA Division I Council session on infractions, which will be a point of discussion at the NCAA convention in January.
While expressing his respect for NCAA vice president of enforcement Jon Duncan, Sankey articulated several misgivings about the state of NCAA law and order. “Despite numerous reviews, working groups, task forces and commissions, the enforcement and infractions process continues to present meaningful challenges affecting member relations and public relations while raising concerns that, if left unaddressed, will emerge as a crisis of confidence,” Sankey wrote.
Of particular concern: the dawdling pace of major infractions cases. The Southern District of New York publicly blew the whistle on college basketball in September 2017; to date, only two of a dozen implicated schools has been sanctioned by the NCAA. (Oklahoma State is serving a postseason ban for 2020–21, though that has been appealed. Alabama was placed on probation for three years and fined, and a former staffer received a 10-year show-cause penalty. Auburn self-imposed a ban for this season, but that case has not concluded.)
“Across Division I, we are now experiencing numerous high-profile infractions matters that have lingered for more than three years prior to any outcome being publicly announced,” Sankey wrote. “To my knowledge, several of these matters are not close to completion. The current timelines must be viewed as unacceptable, and rapid change is needed such that appropriate accountability is applied in a timely manner.”
In that vein, Sankey raised concerns about the Independent Accountability Review Process, the so-called “off ramp” that came into being in August 2019. The purpose was to steer particularly complex and/or contentious cases away from the NCAA’s peer-review process (via the Committee on Infractions) and present the case to groups unaffiliated with either member schools or the NCAA national office.
Like so many of the NCAA’s efforts at substantive change, the IARP has produced unintended consequences that complicate the process. Namely, it’s taking forever to get anything done.
In some instances, the IARP staffers are exercising their prerogative to do their own investigating of what’s already been investigated by the NCAA enforcement staff. Case in point: Sources told SI this week that the IARP’s Complex Case Unit has embarked upon a three-month investigative period on the Kansas case—that’s nearly 15 months after the school received a Notice of Allegations from NCAA Enforcement.
Presuming the customary lag time during the upcoming holiday period, the Complex Case Unit could expected to file a report sometime in March 2021. That could result in amended charges from the original notice of allegations, which would necessitate another round of briefings and responses. Thus there might not be a hearing until summer 2021, on a high-profile, high-stakes case involving a blueblood program that was supposed to be nearing the finish line in September 2019.
And Kansas is just one of four cases currently under IARP auspices, along with North Carolina State, LSU and Memphis (the latter is not connected to the federal corruption scandal). Arizona has requested that its case be sent to the IARP. Louisville officials have said they are considering it. That’s a lot of cases clogging what was supposed to be a fairly narrow pipeline, potentially adding delays to a process that is already producing delays. (And also adding billable hours to the NCAA’s budget. None of the IARP folks are working for free.)
“It appears the Division I membership was either not fully informed or did not fully understand the time delays associated with the new Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP),” Sankey wrote in his letter. “The IARP process has no clear timeline for completion for this new phase of the infractions process. Currently, there have been no decisions produced by the IARP.”
Of note in the NCAA Council review document to which Sankey’s letter is attached are these two sentences regarding the SDNY infractions cases: “All cases issued by the enforcement staff were alleged at Level I, and some included allegations of head coach responsibility, failure to monitor and/or lack of institutional control.” That is previously undisclosed information, and in standard or aggravated cases that would put multiple schools at risk of potential postseason bans in men’s basketball for one to four years. (A mitigated Level I charge could result in a postseason ban of one season, or none.) Those schools: Arizona, Auburn, Creighton, Kansas, Louisville, North Carolina State, South Carolina, TCU and USC.
Additional primary points in Sankey’s letter:
- Identifying what infractions issues really matter, and how to deal with them. That could include diminishing the severity of some violations; consistency in classifying some violations (most notably recruiting contacts); targeted penalties that can be applied quickly to those committing violations; and a greater separation of penalties assessed to schools as opposed to their coaches or other employees. (In other words: Hammer the cheating coach more than the school.)
- An update on whether recommendations from the 2018 Condoleezza Rice–led commission on basketball issues were useful or even put into practice. “At the time of the announcement, expectations were high and focused on meaningful accountability around cases identified by the Southern District of New York,” Sankey wrote. “Expectations for the NCAA to enact meaningful change were equally high around the basketball community. Nearly three years later, it doesn’t appear either expectation—for accountability or change—has been met.”
- A need for the NCAA leadership and school membership to come together on what’s expected in terms of rules compliance, and what should happen when expectations aren’t met. That includes firing rules violators. “The philosophical differences … appear to be greater than ever,” Sankey wrote, while recommending a “comprehensive strategy to educate head coaches, assistant coaches, and athletic administrators on the shared values of intercollegiate athletics while communicating the clear expectations for compliance with NCAA policies. Yet, even this is insufficient strategy. It is necessary for national leaders and campus leaders to insist on personnel dismissals for significant breaches of NCAA rules, which is an expectation that must be shared and valued by university governing boards as well.”
The takeaway from the last point aimed at individual schools: If your coaches are cheating, fire them forthrightly. Stalling and daring the NCAA to get around to making a case and winning it in a hearing is being complicit in the con. As we’ve seen, that wait can last forever.