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With Recent NCAA Infractions, Players Should Not Be Immune

For Oklahoma State, and eventually for North Carolina State, Auburn, Kansas, Louisville, Arizona and LSU, players on those rosters knew this ending was, and is, a possibility.
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When it comes to NCAA infractions rulings, there is always a rush to crush the governing body of college sports. And those who disagree with penalties assessed tend to play the same hit song: “What about the children?!”

The refrain goes like this: They’re punishing players who were [fill in the appropriate adolescent age] when these violations occurred. It is sometimes a valid criticism, thanks to the labyrinthine NCAA crime-and-punishment process. Other times it is a disingenuous deflection. In the case of Oklahoma State and every other men’s basketball program that appears increasingly likely to be hit with major sanctions in the coming months, it’s a completely invalid response.

The Cowboys’ appeal of a 2020 postseason ban was rejected Wednesday, ending a long and laborious fight that will keep them out of the 2022 NCAA tournament. The school reacted with unconcealed outrage, from the press conference tears of head coach Mike Boynton, to a firm statement by president Kayse Shrum, to the words of athletic director Chad Weiberg, who sang the familiar chorus.

“Let’s punish the ones that knowingly broke the rules and not players who were seventh graders when this happened,” Weiberg said, during a media briefing in which some of the reporters in the room sounded as wounded as the school’s leaders.

Here is the problem with playing that song, for Oklahoma State today and eventually for North Carolina State, Auburn, Kansas, Louisville, Arizona and LSU: Every player on all those rosters knew this was very much a possibility. These are the most high-profile investigations in NCAA men’s basketball history, spurred by an FBI probe that resulted in multiple criminal trials and convictions. The potential for major sanctions has loomed over all of these programs since September 2017. Warning signs have been ignored. Risks have been taken.

If somehow recruits missed out on that information, that’s a lack of doing due diligence (or a lack of awareness that the Internet exists). Google is your friend, and any search of “basketball” and “NCAA investigation” for those schools should bring flashing red lights to your screen. These were the ultimate Buyer Beware situations, and any players caught up in it demonstrated a lack of sufficient wariness.

If recruits ignored that and listened to the cynics and/or hucksters who kept saying, “nothing is going to come from this,” they trusted the wrong people. It was an easy line to toss out because the process is so painfully slow and largely subterranean, but a strategy of ignoring or minimizing ongoing investigations inevitably comes with an expiration date.

Oklahoma State basketball court

Oklahoma State men’s basketball will serve a postseason ban in 2022 after the NCAA on Wednesday rejected an appeal of its decision that originally was supposed to take place in 2021.

Instead of listening to an AAU coach or a personal workout guru or anyone else who passes themselves off as possessing insider knowledge, a request for information from NCAA Enforcement would have been the smart play. It would have yielded at least enough to know that major investigations were open and ongoing at those schools. The NCAA is infamously close-mouthed, but its role is not to withhold important information from recruits or steer them in the wrong direction.

If the coaches at the schools under investigation lied to recruits? Heaven help them. Whistling past the NCAA graveyard has been a useful strategy for the previous few years, but it also comes with an expiration date that is now close at hand.

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If coaches and administrators played the same duplicitous cards football coach Hugh Freeze, athletic director Ross Bjork and company played years ago at Mississippi, misleading recruits and the media about the nature of an NCAA inquiry, it should result in its own set of sanctions. (Lawsuits from the affected players included.)

When attorney Thomas Mars dug into every open record he could get his hands on at Ole Miss, trying to find out who the school deceived and how, it led to a wave of transfers and automatic eligibility elsewhere for several Rebels. Today that’s no longer an obstacle, thanks to the eradication of the one-year residence rule for all transfers. But here’s what could be on the table for any of the above schools who lied to players on current rosters about the potential for sanctions: more sanctions. Try an NCAA lack of ethical conduct charge on for size, coaches and administrators, and see how it fits.

As for the Oklahoma State ruling itself: The surprise registered by the school is probably genuine, given what has happened elsewhere involving schools that had assistant coaches pinched in the FBI sting. Lamont Evans, who was on the take from aspiring agent Christian Dawkins and a financial advisor in exchange for providing access to a player (Jeffrey Carroll), did the same dirty work while he was at South Carolina. Yet the Gamecocks’ infractions case related to Evans’ violations resulted in probation and some recruiting sanctions, but not a postseason ban.

The rulings were made by the same infractions panel. The difference comes in the gradations of the Level I violation the school was charged with—South Carolina’s violation was deemed “mitigated” and Oklahoma State’s “standard.” This gets into the NCAA weeds a bit, but penalties can vary from “aggravated” to “standard” to “mitigated.” Actions a school or individual takes in response to violations, prior infractions cases or an overall commitment (or lack thereof) to rules compliance can be the differentiator between an “aggravated,” “standard” and “mitigated” charges. In modern NCAA jurisprudence, those differences are where much of the tension lies.

What exactly constituted the differentiation between OSU’s “standard” and South Carolina’s “mitigated” is unclear, though Oklahoma State’s 2015 football infractions case appears to have been a factor.

After discussion with sources well-versed in parsing infractions documents and rulings, the distinction between South Carolina and Oklahoma State hinges on the actions of Evans. In the South Carolina case, Evans agreed to meetings with Dawkins and a financial advisor to interact with a player. Once he got to Oklahoma State, Evans was the one facilitating a meeting between Dawkins, a financial advisor and a player. Court documents show a Feb. 3, 2017, meeting in West Virginia the night before Oklahoma State played the Mountaineers. Evans allegedly arranged that meeting after being paid $2,000.

The appeals committee did make a point of requesting greater clarity from the Committee on Infractions going forward when it comes to identifying the factors in an “aggravated,” “standard” or “mitigated” ruling. Expect that to be a point of consideration in the cases to come.

But the Oklahoma State ruling and upholding on appeal maintains the precedent for charging the school at the same general level as its involved coaches. In other words, playing the “rogue assistant” card isn’t likely to get a school off the hook from sanctions, which should create some unease today at Auburn, where former assistant coach Chuck Person was fired for accepting bribes (more of them than Evans), and elsewhere.

Oklahoma State was the first Southern District of New York case to finish its journey through the NCAA system and result in a postseason ban. It won’t be the last. If fans don’t like the outcomes, just remember this before singing that old favorite song: The players being penalized now for what happened in 2017 should have seen it coming.

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