Opinion: With no transparency, schools like Arizona, LSU are allowed to game NCAA’s system
We are now in the phase of NCAA justice where some of the more prominent schools that were implicated in the FBI’s sting operation to expose corruption in college basketball are being formally charged with rules violations, which will eventually lead to penalties.
In the meantime, here’s how much the cloud of scandal is hurting some of these programs:
- Arizona, which was reportedly charged with multiple Level 1 violations in a Notice of Allegations delivered late last week, got a commitment from four-star shooting guard Shane Dezonie on Sunday.
- LSU, which has stood by a coach who was on a wiretap talking with a middleman about his “strong-ass offer” in the recruitment of point guard Javonte Smart, is set to sign a pair of top-50 prospects for the 2021-22 season.
- Auburn, which won’t even formally acknowledge it has received a Notice of Allegations, got a commitment earlier this month from top-five recruit Jabari Smith and enrolled five-star point guard Sharife Cooper this fall.
So while fans and coaches at other schools have been waiting literally years for these programs to get hit with the NCAA’s sledgehammer of justice, you know who isn’t buying it? Recruits.
But it’s easy to tell 17- and 18-year-olds that the allegations being leveled at high-profile coaches like Sean Miller and Will Wade or blueblood programs like Kansas that whatever may come from the NCAA won’t really affect their college careers.
Sean Miller's program at Arizona reportedly has been charged with multiple Level 1 violations in a Notice of Allegations. (Photo: Jacob Snow, USA TODAY Sports)
For one thing, these cases are moving so slowly that the timeline for resolution has become as abstract as Salvador Dali’s melting clocks. Second, when the NCAA allows schools to hide what they’ve been charged with, it’s easier to pretend like there’s not a major problem on the horizon.
Frankly, I wish everyone was as transparent as Kansas, which has made both its Notice of Allegations and the school’s response public on a website. The document itself is damning: Five Level 1 charges against the basketball program, lack of institutional control and a head coach responsibility allegation against Bill Self, all of which could result in severe penalties and long suspensions.
Though much of Kansas’ defense is worthy of an eye roll — you’d essentially have to believe that Self didn’t know an Adidas bag man was illicitly helping him recruit players, even though that was his stated purpose in text conversations between the two of them — give the school some credit for putting it all out there. At least it’s more honorable than hiding, which is exactly what some of these other schools are doing because the NCAA lets them do it.
Or, more specifically, schools who make up the NCAA’s rules have shielded themselves by putting the enforcement process under a veil of secrecy. The NCAA doesn’t announce that specific schools are under investigation or have been charged with violations, and there is no rule compelling schools to publicly disclose anything about the process. The only time anyone is required to speak is at the end of the case when the NCAA issues a ruling and makes the infractions report public.
That means schools can be under investigation for years without anyone knowing, though high-profile cases often tend to leak out into the media.
Another way allegations can become public is through Freedom of Information Act requests. But there are two problems with that. First, those laws only apply to public universities, so private schools are under no legal obligation to disclose any documents that come from the NCAA. Second, some universities use loopholes and creative lawyering to get around those requirements or slow-play them depending on the specific state laws they operate under.
At Arizona and Auburn, specifically, there’s no indication that the schools plan on releasing anything about these cases a minute before they have to. LSU apparently hasn’t yet received its Notice of Allegations, but given how stridently the school has stood behind Wade thus far, it would be a mild surprise if they shoved it out into the public eye.
Why? Recruiting, of course.
The longer the documents are kept under wraps, the longer coaches can tell the kids they’re trying to reel in that’s all some big unknown off into the future. And the longer they can stave off the inevitability of major sanctions, the longer they can keep their programs above water. At every one of these schools, after all, a coach is more likely to get fired for losing than for cheating.
That’s probably a better tactic than what happened a few years ago at Ole Miss, which was accused of major violations in the football program. Instead of releasing the document right away, which coincided with a big recruiting weekend, school officials tried to spin a narrative through off-the-record conversations with media members that it wasn't a big deal and that the really bad stuff happened under a previous coaching staff. Of course, months later when they made the document public, it was clear they had misled everyone. Everything collapsed shortly after that.
Schools used to say that the worst part of being under an NCAA investigation was the uncertainty of it, that what really crippled them wasn’t necessarily the penalties but the months and, in some cases years, where the perception was that they were about to get hammered. Perhaps the most notable example was North Carolina basketball, which really struggled to close the deal with top recruits for a stretch of several years until the fall of 2017, when the Committee on Infractions concluded its academic fraud case by declining to impose significant penalties.
But schools who were ensnared by the FBI investigation have turned that on its head by saying little and running out the clock. It’s been more than three years since the FBI issued indictments and 18 months since the trials and the only program that has been sanctioned severely was Oklahoma State, which is banned from the postseason this year.
With each passing month, the immediacy of the scandal recedes into the background. And with the NCAA utilizing a new Independent Accountability Resolution Process for some high-profile cases rather than the Committee on Infractions, there’s no precedent on which to even guess when Kansas will have its penalties handed down, much less any of these other schools whose cases aren’t as far along.
By dodging accountability for as long as they can and saying as little as possible, these schools are gaming the system. But it’s hard to blame them for trying when it’s exactly what the NCAA allows them to do.
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