Two years later, fallout from hoops scandal still unclear

Two years ago today, federal agents broke down doors and stampeded into hotel rooms amid a pre-dawn spree of arrests that shook the basketball world. A federal investigation into basketball’s underbelly led to the FBI arresting 10 men from all levels of basketball, including four college assistant coaches.

There have been two trials, several guilty verdicts and other plea deals, an NCAA commission headed by a former stateswoman, some major association bylaw changes … yet still we are far from a full resolution. And now the NCAA is putting the brakes on itself, extending its crime-and-punishment process deep into 2020 and likely beyond.

From the moment federal authorities called a press conference and declared, “We have your playbook,” one question has been asked persistently and relentlessly around the sport: “Is anything actually going to happen?” The immediate follow-up question: “When?”

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On the second birthday of one of the most raging and impactful scandals in a sport long riddled with them, the answers remain elusive.

While notices of allegations have been delivered to North Carolina State and Kansas, NCAA Enforcement is behind its own timeline enunciated in June. NCAA executive vice president of regulatory affairs Stan Wilcox said the association hoped to deliver six NOAs by the end of summer. Arizona, Auburn, Louisville, LSU, USC and likely other schools remain braced to hear what they will be charged with. This week, the Associated Press reported that Committee on Infractions chair Carol Cartwright informed enforcement head Jon Duncan that the COI “will not act” on cases until Nov. 20, stalling the ongoing proceedings for the time being.

Yet as ponderous as this process has been on the investigative side, that pales in comparison to the inaction at the university level.

“It’s been one of the more disappointing, yet less surprising, occurrences in college athletics in the last 10 years,” said a veteran athletic director, who declined to be named. “I’m more surprised at the lack of activity at the boards of these schools. Embarrassment has gone by [the] wayside.”

Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self reacts during an NCAA tournament game. (USAT)
Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self reacts during an NCAA tournament game. (USAT)

Two years later, other than the ouster of Louisville’s Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich, there’s been little tangible fallout on the college basketball landscape. Since the scandal blew up, most implicated programs have done very little in terms of public corrective measures. Instead, what’s emerged is a fascinating game of chicken between high-profile schools standing by their coaches and the NCAA.

The schools have, essentially, dared the NCAA to do what it has at times been historically incapable of – litigating and enforcing its own rulebook. Perhaps emboldened by North Carolina’s controversial escape from academic fraud sanctions in October 2017, the days of proactive self-policing and cooperating with the NCAA could be over. Since the scandal broke, schools have even hired coaches implicated in the scandal, as Cal State Northridge hired former NC State coach Mark Gottfried and La Salle hired former Louisville coach Kenny Johnson.

There has been little self-directed outrage from fans of the implicated schools, many of whom seem more interested in pointing fingers at other programs they believe have escaped comparable scrutiny. One of the side effects of an “everyone does it” cheating scandal is that fans then expect everyone to be investigated and charged. It doesn’t work out that way.

Meanwhile, the schools that are implicated have largely kept rolling unimpeded by ongoing investigations. Recruiting at high-end places like Arizona, Kansas, Auburn and USC has hummed along as if there is no potential for fallout. All four of those schools have top-15 freshman classes on campus right now preparing for the 2019-20 season.

The come-and-get-us strategy of the schools has essentially been crafted based on history, a hedge on NCAA Enforcement and the Committee on Infractions living down to their checkered results catching cheaters. It took the feds launching an investigation — based on the questionable premise of recruiting payoffs being a crime — to force this attempted cleanup of college basketball into action.

Prior to Sept. 26, 2017, the recruiting environment had spiraled to a point where breaking federal law to cut deals for recruits was normalized and a refined black market for purchasing players emerged — with shoe companies, agents and financial advisers bankrolling much of the underground economy. A culture of cynicism developed as the sport’s scofflaw reputation grew, with many in the industry resigned to believe nothing would ever change.

“For people to look at our profession basically as a joke, you can’t blame them,” said Penn coach Steve Donahue. “That’s the disappointing thing. There’s a lot of good people in this profession who do it right way, incredible coaches and people. People will judge us on what they read and hear about. And nothing ever gets done.”

Significant action may well be coming, given events this week.

Georgia Tech, which was involved in a low-wattage scandal unrelated to the FBI probe, was hit Thursday with a postseason ban for the 2019-20 season. The severity of that penalty took many by surprise, although Committee on Infractions chair Joel Maturi indicated there’s been no orchestrated effort to punish schools more severely. "I don't think there's any effort to be more stringent or strict than we were in the past,” said Maturi, former Minnesota athletic director.

Rick Pitino and his former boss Tom Jurich being run out of Louisville was one of the few repercussions of the college basketball scandal so far. (Getty)
Rick Pitino and his former boss Tom Jurich being run out of Louisville was one of the few repercussions of the college basketball scandal so far. (Getty)

And even the most hardened cynics raised their eyebrows at the notice of allegations delivered to Kansas earlier this week, which featured three Level I charges, including lack of institutional control and a head coach responsibility violation for Hall of Famer Bill Self. One veteran compliance official termed that as “the trifecta” to Yahoo Sports. This fell in line with major allegations levied against NC State, and the stiff punishment delivered to former Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie in July.

There are clear signs that NCAA Enforcement is aggressively targeting head coaches and going for major penalties — in accordance with the membership’s wishes. The Condoleezza Rice-led Commission on College Basketball in its 2018 report called for “stronger penalties, including longer postseason bans, loss of all postseason revenue sharing, up to a lifetime ban, head coach restrictions that span more than one season and full-year recruiting restrictions.”

Kansas will be a fascinating test case. NCAA Enforcement has rarely been as well-armed as it was in crafting the Jayhawks’ NOA, thanks to federal wiretaps, bank records, testimony under oath and the association’s own investigative work. On the opposite side stands a basketball blueblood that already has very publicly signaled its willingness to dispute many of the allegations it faces, a strategy that famously backfired for USC football more than a decade ago.

“I’m more confident that the NCAA will take some strong measures, maybe more than most people,” said a veteran head coach. “I get the cynicism outside our profession but the NCAA has gone on record stating that they’re going to follow through with evidence that they find that’s worthy of some type of judgement.”

But the Committee on Infractions’ requested slowdown of the investigative pace revives one of the strongest criticisms of the NCAA: The timeliness of its crime-and-punishment process. Enforcement has streamlined its workflow to the point that the average case can now be completed in 10 months — but that won’t be the case here, even with the importation of crucial information directly from the federal trials.
A conservative estimate on when Kansas’ case could be decided is late summer of 2020. That includes about 150 days to craft responses from each side, scheduling a Committee on Infractions hearing and then oftentimes two months for a decision. And, of course, there are often appeals of rulings in major cases. For all the cases, a safe estimate for all of the schools to clear through the NCAA process is two more years.

At this point, two years into a scandal that shook basketball to its core, the lawyers are the only clear winners.

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