Friday, just before lunch, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive held a press conference from the league’s office in Birmingham, Alabama. During that presser, Slive announced that the league was handing down an 8-game suspension for the University of Tennessee’s flamboyant men’s Basketball Coach, Bruce Pearl.
Pearl got into trouble for hosting a barbecue for some high school players, but that would hardly rise to a standard of a major breach of recruiting ethics. Pearl’s more serious violation was lying to NCAA and league officials who investigated the incident.
Over the weekend, several pundits, bloggers and sports radio talkers began speculating that the SEC was (1) finally turning its full attention to the investigation of recruiting impropriety allegations surrounding Auburn QB Cam Newton and (2) might use the Pearl case as a precedent for removing players from the field as well.
When the news of Pearl's suspension broke Friday morning, many fans suggested Pearl's punishment was an attempt by the SEC to defray attention from the scandal presently surrounding Cam Newton. While the suspension may have succeeded in temporarily removing Newton from the headlines, Pearl's punishment had been in the works since Oct. 4, 2010, a full month before the news of Newton's alleged recruiting improprieties broke. On that October day, Tennessee played LSU in Baton Rouge and Commissioner Slive first broached the topic of a potential league suspension with Vol athletic director Mike Hamilton.
In considering a punishment, Slive asserted a phrase that will become more important as the Newton case continues to evolve.
"We wanted to be certain that we understood the established facts before we considered what action, if any, the conference should take." (You can listen to the full interview here).
Slive distinguished the SEC's punishment of Pearl from its inaction on Newton based on the presence of "established facts" in the case of Pearl and the lack of such facts in the Newton investigation. (By "established facts" Slive does not mean that comments have been reported in the media. He means either the parties agree to the facts, as Tennessee did in the Pearl case, or an adjudicative body -- the NCAA, the FBI, someone who is conducting a legitimate investigation -- has determined a recorded set of facts).
Asked by co-host Brent Dougherty whether he thought about waiting for the NCAA to issue its findings before acting, Slive replied, "I did think about it. I thought about it for a long time. But we had established facts here. ... I thought it was important for our conference to do something rather than just to wait for the NCAA and do something on top of that."
Slive went on to acknowledge the process by which he tries to make a reasoned decision in the frenzied modern media environment. "I try to be deliberate," Slive said. "I think sometimes to the frustration of others, but I think we have an obligation to act on established facts."
Slive’s suspension would not have been possible last year. In June, the conference amended its bylaws to give the Commissioner greater power in sitting both coaches and players, without having to wait for the NCAA or any other investigative body to complete their laborious investigations. The new bylaw reads thusly:
"The Commissioner has the duty and power to investigate the validity of violations and impose penalties and sanctions against member institutions, their athletic staff members or student-athletes, for practices and conduct which violate the spirit, as well as the letter of NCAA and SEC rules and regulations. This shall include the ability to render prospective student-athletes or current student-athletes ineligible for competition due to their involvement in a violation of NCAA or SEC rules that occurs during the individual's recruitment. The Commissioner also has the authority to suspend institutional staff members from participation in recruiting activities or participation in practice and/or competition due to their involvement in violations of NCAA or SEC rules."
It is unclear how intensely the conference has been involved in CamGate since the ESPN and New York Times stories of November 4, which reported that a former Mississippi State football player, John Bond, was approached by someone representing then Blinn College QB Cam Newton and asking for money in exchange for his signature on a scholarship.
What is clear is that Cam Newton’s father, Cecil Newton, admitted that he had discussed money for Newton’s services; that the price was in the ballpark of $180,000; that Newton eventually signed with Auburn because his father told him to.
There is no “smoking gun” evidence that someone connected to Auburn paid up. But even the mere solicitation of extra benefits is a violation of NCAA rules and probably means the player being recruited is no longer eligible as an amateur student-athlete.
Before I’m deluged with emails and comments from Auburn fans and Newton defenders citing the NCAA rules, please read the underlined text again. The SEC doesn’t need to follow your precise interpretations of the NCAA bylaws. If Slive and the SEC determines that the Newtons’ conduct was unethical and violates the spirit of the rules, they can declare him ineligible.
They don’t have to wait until the NCAA, the FBI or state regulators to complete any of their investigations, either. They don’t even have to connect an Auburn booster, coach or fundraising foundation with a money trail to the Newton’s. In fact, Auburn could be completely innocent in the whole affair, and the SEC could still determine that the Newtons don’t even need to be within spitting distance of a college football game.
Slive removed Bruce Pearl based on "established facts." We’re almost certain to see what the SEC is able to establish with regards to Cam Newton.