Although he said he was “shocked” and “stunned” to learn of his enforcement team’s missteps in the University of Miami investigation Wednesday, NCAA president Mark Emmert probably shouldn’t have been.
History hasn’t been on his side lately.
Paying Nevin Shapiro’s bankruptcy attorney to depose witnesses and collect information for its investigation could be the NCAA’s biggest blunder yet, but it’s hardly the first time the people asking the questions for college sports’ governing body have been accused of going over the top and botching a case.
In fact, Emmert can rewind to last fall and situations involving former Southern California assistant Todd McNair, who was complicit in the Reggie Bush case, and UCLA freshman basketball forward Shabazz Muhammad.
McNair, who was hit with a one-year “show cause” penalty for allegedly knowing about payments Bush had received from marketing agents, is now suing the NCAA for its “malicious one-sided investigation” against him. The NCAA tried to have the case thrown out in November. But after reviewing the contents of sealed NCAA documents (excerpts and emails), a Los Angeles judge ruled an investigative committee member, an NCAA worker and a person who works in the agency’s appeals division were “over the top” and showed “ill will or hatred” toward McNair, and he has grounds to win a defamation suit.
The situation with Muhammad never escalated to that level but was still embarrassing for the NCAA. After spending a year investigating three unofficial recruiting visits made to Duke and North Carolina that were paid for by a financial adviser who claimed to be close to Muhammad’s family, the NCAA ruled in November the 6-6 swingman was ineligible because he violated its amateurism rules.
Less than two weeks later, though, after Muhammad sat out three games and paid back $1,600 in impermissible benefits, the NCAA dropped its case and reinstated him. Why? Because an attorney overheard the boyfriend of the lead investigator in the NCAA investigation bragging to someone how his girlfriend was going to find Muhammad ineligible and not allow him to play this season — before the NCAA’s investigation had even really gone anywhere. The lead investigator was fired last month.
Those cases — along with UM’s — are just three recent examples that have raised questions about the NCAA’s credibility when it comes to policing itself and its members. Public trust, though, has been waning since way before that.
“The NCAA is dealing with the same sort of problems athletic departments deal with,” said John Infante, a former compliance officer who now runs the popular Bylaw Blog that analyzes the NCAA’s behavior in cases like UM’s.
“I know people are making jokes about it. ‘Did the coach go rogue? Did the investigator go rogue? Did we fail to monitor?’ People have asked me: ‘How would something like this happen?’ The same way coaches are expected to deliver results and cut corners sometimes, so do investigators. In a public case like this — where the public says ‘We had all the facts 15 months ago, why isn’t Miami punished yet?’ — there is that pressure to get your man, to deliver a result.
“I think this leads to a whole new initiative. What that change is it’s tough to say.”
As for UM shifting gears, attacking and seeking a settlement or retribution from the NCAA like Muhammad and McNair did, Infante doesn’t see that happening. But Hurricanes great Alonzo Highsmith thinks Miami should apply pressure.
“I’ve been adamant about suing the NCAA from the beginning,” Highsmith said. “Unless you fight these guys back, the NCAA is the big, bad wolf. When they come around, you are supposed to cower and lay down and they make all the rules, make all the decisions. Until you fight them back and win, they will continue to do what they want to do.”
Infante said it’s more complicated than that.
“It’s tricky for all the parties involved because you are still down to the cooperative principal,” Infante said. “You still have to cooperate with the NCAA’s investigation. For Miami [to sue], that’s a very high-risk maneuver. Everything in this case has suggested that up until now, they’re not really putting up a fight and they might be exhausting their options to defend themselves.
“I think the more likely scenario is Miami lets this play out and if the sanctions or the findings that come out of the Committee on Infractions’ final report are excessive, I think that’s the point Miami picks up on this and uses this as grounds for a lawsuit. [UM] is also more likely to appeal anything now. But in terms of suing the NCAA, that’s always a drastic step. Very few schools have done it. It’s generally individuals.”
Infante said he doesn’t think many of the former UM coaches facing charges — Clint Hurtt, Aubrey Hill and Frank Haith — will fight the NCAA because most of them are still employed.
“If they had been fired or [were] not working, I think they would be much more likely to pounce on this and try to get themselves detached and the case thrown out,” Infante said. “But since they’re working, I think it’s going to be more of a wait and see what their penalties are and if it harms their career, I can almost guarantee there will be a couple lawsuits against the NCAA trying to say this whole thing, none of it is proper.”