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Commission: Independent probes needed in complex NCAA cases

NCAA President Mark Emmert speaks about the recommendations

NCAA President Mark Emmert speaks about the recommendations by the Commission on College Basketball at the NCAA headquarters, Wednesday, April 25, 2018, in Indianapolis. Credit: AP / Darron Cummings

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Commission on College Basketball sees a “broken” NCAA enforcement process for handling complex, high-stakes cases.

And that’s why a “prompt radical transformation” appeared among its reform proposals Wednesday amid a federal corruption investigation into the sport. The commission led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recommends creating a two-track system that outsources top-tier cases for independent professional investigation and resolution, strengthening penalties as deterrents, and clarifying the NCAA’s role in policing academic issues.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Rice said the current system built around peer participation from member schools works in most cases. But it’s those major multi-year cases, she said, 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.

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.”

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 the question of whether member schools will approve heavy penalties such as five-year postseason bans or forfeited revenue sharing, as well as contractual provisions allowing NCAA discipline to include the termination of officials for violations. And will schools reach agreement on more 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.

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