Thursday, December 2, 2010

What we learned from the NCAA’s reinstatement of Cam Newton

image Lord knows I have only an acolyte's knowledge of how the NCAA deliberative processes work, but I learned something yesterday. Three things, actually. The conventional wisdom was that the NCAA as a whole makes decisions after investigations have been completed and  the enforcement staff has all of the evidence.  After careful consideration of that evidence, precedents from previous cases and the unique circumstances of the situation, they make the call.

Yesterday's precedent setting decision threw some water on that. The water flows both ways, though. The reinstatement and eligibility determinations are made separate from the enforcement staff’s investigations. The reinstatement issues relate only to the eligibility of student-athletes involved in an incident, based on information provided by the institution's own investigations and discussions between the eligibility and academic affairs folks at the NCAA and the member institution.

But enforcement investigations are separate from the eligibility and academic side of the house. Those investigations are performed by NCAA staff doing their own sleuthing, and determine whether or not the institution has violated league rules. The fact that a reinstatement has taken place does not mean that an investigation has completed. In fact, yesterday's ruling makes it patently obvious that there will be additional investigation of this.

It’s not over:

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, which led to his reinstatement.

Reinstatement decisions are independent of the NCAA enforcement process and typically are made once the facts of the student-athlete’s involvement are determined. The reinstatement process is likely to conclude prior to the close of an investigation. It is NCAA policy not to comment on current, pending or potential investigations.

NCAA press releases are very carefully worded communiqués. There is very little in them that is ambiguous or left open to widely varying interpretation. If you put these two statements in their only logical context, then you understand that the NCAA is announcing that they’ve made a decision based on information they have on hand, provided by the member institution and the responsible parties, but that an investigation is ongoing. You don’t state that you’ve made a decision based on information available at a certain point in time, and then state that reinstatements come about before the close of an investigation if there is no ongoing investigation. They’ve determined that Cam Newton’s eligibility was not compromised by the CamGate incident, but they are still in the process of determining whether Auburn University was in violation of league rules.

One thing we do no about NCAA enforcement staff investigative process is that once they start digging, any and all potential rules violations are on the menu. The NCAA, in the process of digging into the Newton case, may find violations associated with any other players in any other sports or in the whole athletic program.  History has also shown that when the NCAA enforcement arm wants to hammer a member institution, they mash-up whatever rules they need to, interpret them however they want to and follow or ignore whatever precedents they want to, and you are toast. In other words, member institutions are expected to follow very carefully worded bylaws. But the enforcement staff follows its own rules, and those are not necessarily the same ones.

I’d like to take this opportunity to correct some misperceptions about the genesis of the NCAA’s investigation of Newton’s recruitment. Media reports state that the NCAA began looking into the matter in November. This is incorrect. In the original story that broke the new to the public, the NCAA was made aware of the issue by Mississippi State University in June and had requested records from Cecil Newton in October of 2010. This also roughly coincides with the indictment of Milton McGregor, the unsealing of those indictments by a court decision, and with the completion of repairs to Newton’s church. The sense in the media is that the NCAA wrapped up an investigation into Newton’s recruitment and exonerated Auburn in about one month’s time. That is not supported by the record of events.

Two other things were learned from yesterday’s release, also. First, the NCAA apparently didn’t consider the law of unintended consequences when it refused to impose multigame suspensions or vacation of wins. It absolutely will open the floodgates of runners, agents and relatives soliciting payments for letters of intent. As long as the prospect has plausible deniability, yesterday’s ruling sets a precedent that would allow the player to escape a penalty for his handlers’ actions. That is a dreadful, dreadful precedent and it needs to be fixed before college recruiting becomes a double-blind silent auction for the services of 18-year olds.

Secondly, we learned that the SEC played the role of the toothless whore in this whole affair. When Cecil Newton copped to shopping Cam to Mississippi State during the meeting with the NCAA and Auburn on November 11, Mike Slive should have stepped in and issued a suspension. It had everything it needed to do so—both the power and the evidence to support the decision. Knowing what we know now—that the NCAA eligibility staff, the SEC and Auburn legal counsel hammered out a deal—the SEC should have suspended Cam to maintain the integrity of the conference. It failed, and failed miserably.

The best possible outcome of this is that all investigations conclude and Auburn University, Mississippi State University and Cam Newton are proven to have done absolutely nothing wrong. Mississippi State would be proven right in refusing the pay-for-play offer and reporting it to the authorities. Auburn would be proven right in playing an athlete that it had recruited honestly and sincerely had no knowledge of chicanery, and Newton honestly didn’t know his father was on the take.

But given what we know about ongoing federal investigations of ties between prominent Auburn trustees and boosters and the institution’s financial and athletic affairs, and given the history those characters have had with regulatory violations of appalling nature, that utopian outcome seems far fetched.

And given the careful wording of the NCAA’s statement yesterday, we may still have a lot to learn in the months, perhaps even years to come.  This is far from being over, and anyone who thinks it ended yesterday is delusional.