NCAA bylaws require that a successful appeal of sanctions proves an “abuse of discretion.” But fans understand that doing so is challenging. The odds are bleak. College athletics’ governing body must acknowledge its previously rendered decision was incorrect. In essence, it must admit failure.
Since the NCAA amended its procedure for appeals hearings in 2008, just one in 11 cases has been successful. USC athletic director Pat Haden, as a result, has exercised caution when asked about the Trojans’ chances of softening penalties handed down on the football program last June, which infamously include a two-year bowl ban and a loss of 30 scholarships over three years.
“I’m just realistic,” Haden told reporters earlier this month. “I’m just going with the odds — 10 percent of appeals are successful.”
Haden, along with other school officials, such as President C. L. Max Nikias, met with the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee on Saturday in Indianapolis to present USC’s case that the same organization had erred in its initial ruling last summer.
“All I will say is that I want to thank the NCAA for giving us an opportunity before the appeals committee to have a good and fair hearing,” Nikias said after the meeting at an Indianapolis hotel. “Now we have to wait for the ruling.”
In spite of Nikias’ remarks, however, it’s important to note that when it comes to USC and the NCAA, things have never been “fair.” In many respects, since the inception of sanctionsgate about a year ago, the Trojans have been dealt a rather unfavorable hand.
When the university initially met with the 10-member Committee on Infractions in February 2010, the staff’s inclusion of certain members jeopardized the integrity of the investigation. Heading the committee was chairperson Paul Dee, the former athletic director at the University of Miami.
Under Dee’s watch, the Hurricanes’ athletic program was cited by the NCAA for a “significant lack of institutional control” in 1995 and further sanctioned after a myriad of gun, drug and sexual abuse scandals plagued its football team.
Fifteen years later, Dee applied the same term to the USC football program in dolling out the harshest penalties since the 1987 SMU death penalty, a title that had previously been reserved for Dee’s Canes. Since then many have speculated that the former athletic director was influenced by a desire to have another modern-day football titan carry a distinction that had once been reserved for Miami: dirty.
Other members included Melissa L. Conboy, the deputy director of athletics at the University of Notre Dame, one of the Trojans’ fiercest rivals. For the better part of 22 years, Conboy has worked in the Irish athletic department, creating a possible conflict of interest.
But the decision to replace James O’Fallon, a University of Oregon law professor representing the Pac-10, on the committee with former COI member Josephine Pututo of the University of Nebraska, might have been the most irresponsible action taken. O’Fallon was forced to recuse himself because of Oregon’s conference affiliation with USC, and Dee opted to replace him with Pututo despite having already used up her limit of three three-year terms.
In spite of a puzzling collection of committee members, however, NCAA representatives insisted that the Trojans, who had been fighting allegations regarding improper benefits received by former tailback Reggie Bush since 2006, would be treated fairly and given due process.
During a 2004 hearing in front of Congress, Pututo explained that the NCAA’s enforcement, infractions and hearing procedures not only met due process standards, but in certain cases exceeded the 14th Amendment’s procedural protections. In short, USC was expected to be granted an opportunity to refute claims of a “lack of institution control,” suggesting that former coach Pete Carroll and his staff were fully aware of Bush receiving thousands of dollars in extra benefits.
But in the initial case USC was not afforded such an opportunity. The committee instead found that USC was guilty of a “lack of institutional control” on the basis that it “should have known” of Bush’s dealings with sports marketers Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels.
“The real issue here is, if you have high-profile players, your enforcement staff has to monitor those students at a higher level,” Dee said in a June teleconference announcing the sanctions. “High-profile players merit high-profile enforcement.”
The rendered decision, however, varies from other, more recent rulings in which such similar logic seems to have been ignored, raising the question that if it’s applicable to USC, then why not other similar collegiate institutions?
When Auburn declared its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton ineligible in December amid allegations of Newton’s father seeking composition for his son to sign a letter of intent to play at Mississippi State, the NCAA appeared far more lenient.
In a span of 48 hours, it ruled Newton eligible, citing insufficient evidence to take action. By contrast, its investigation of USC and Bush took approximately four years — or 35,040 hours.
“Based on the information available to the reinstatement staff at this time, we do not have sufficient evidence that Cam Newton or anyone from Auburn was aware of this activity,” said Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president for academic and membership affairs in a news release.
Despite far too little evidence in the Bush case, the committee punished USC while giving Newton and Auburn the benefit of the doubt.
Similarly, when five Ohio State football players were ruled ineligible in December for selling awards and exchanging autographs for tattoos, their five-game suspensions were postponed until the 2011 season since “the student-athletes were not aware they were committing violations.”
USC was punished for alleged ignorance in relation to Bush yet conversely the Tattoo Five’s penalties were softened due to ignorance.
This past weekend, Nikias cited fairness during his two-line description of USC’s appeal hearing, a largely optimistic outlook considering how events have transpired over the past 11 months.
We can only hope he’s right, because at this point in time we’re all still waiting for the NCAA to do anything “good and fair” in regard to USC.
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