Tuesday, November 23, 2010

SEC Questions on the Cam Newton scandal and Bruce Pearl suspension

image  Mike Slive’s use of the new rule to suspend Bruce Pearl has implications on the Cam Newton recruiting investigation, but it also brings up a lot of questions.

This was blogged about yesterday, and there was considerable discussion over the weekend in the blogosphere and across the interwebs. As expected, on Friday SEC Commissioner Mike Slive announced that the league was imposing an 8-game suspension for the University of Tennessee Basketball Coach Bruce Pearl. Pearl’s offense was hosting a BBQ for prospective student-athletes then playing a shell game with the truth when investigators questioned him about the incident.  Slive was wielding a new club given to him by the conference’s ratification of a new bylaw, which I quote for you, again:

"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."

A lot of the discussion over the weekend covered how the Commissioner determined what constituted “practices and conduct” that warranted such an action. During radio interviews conducted in the hours after his presser last Friday, Slive said, “We wanted to be certain that we understood the established facts before we considered what action, if any, the conference should take."

That’s an eye-opening statement, especially in light of the first sentence in the new bylaw.

In comments to ESPN, Slive’s Associate Commissioner for Compliance, Greg Sankey said that the SEC wasn’t an investigative body:

Without specifically addressing the initial call from Mississippi State, which came several months earlier, Sankey said what the SEC originally was told about the allegation was "limited information."

"We don't deal in rumor and innuendo," Sankey said. "We deal in facts."

He said the SEC is not an investigative body, adding that it can share information with NCAA enforcement as needed. He declined to say whether the Newton allegation was shared with the NCAA.

Sankey also would not directly comment on whether the league office considers this an ongoing issue or a closed case.

"We're attentive to a variety of issues at any given time," he said. "We pay attention to a lot."

So, the Commissioner has the duty and power to investigate violations.  It makes decisions based on “established facts” but according to Sankey, the conference is not an investigative body. And yet it deals in facts, not rumor or innuendo. This just brings up more questions.  Really big questions, like:

  • Who becomes the investigative body?
  • What is the process for determining whether allegations of rules violation are valid?
  • What is the standard for an “established fact?”
  • Is an established fact something that the conference establishes independently?
  • Is an established fact something that the alleged perpetrators have copped a plea on?
  • Is an established fact something that a credible news organization, like ESPN, the New York Times, Yahoo! Sports or the Wall Street Journal runs as “hard news?”
  • Can a blogger or citizen journalist, using named sources, public records and published reports meet the standard for establishing facts?

If you’re going to create a process by which a governing body can penalize its members for violations of agreed-upon standards, then you have to create a process by which the governing body determines the who, how, where, when and how much of the violation occurred.

This has huge implications in the slow-motion disaster of the Cam Newton recruiting investigation.  ESPN and the New York Times are both credible news organizations. On November 4 and November 5 respectively, these two organizations ran hard news reports that Cameron Newton’s father Cecil had approached Mississippi State University boosters regarding a pay for play plan that would have landed Cam in Starkville.  The price?  Somewhere between $100,000 and $180,000. On November 11, ESPN ran a second news report documenting that both the father and the son spoke of a pay-for-play scheme with Mississippi State representatives.  Both ESPN and the New York Times require sign-off from two editors before a controversial (ie, potentially defamatory) hard news story runs. At the Times, those stories also require sign-off by legal counsel. Do the ESPN and New York Times articles rise to the standard of “established facts?”

The conference needs to state what it will and what it will not accept as proof of validity when determining that practices and conduct … violate the spirit, as well as the letter of NCAA and SEC rules and regulations. And it needs to act, one way or another, in the Cam Newton case. The consequences of failing to do so are enormous, and may well be jumping the shark on college footballs fame and future fortunes.

If Newton is allowed to continue to play, and additional evidence proves conclusively that the Newtons are dirty, and Auburn continues undefeated through the Iron Bowl, SEC Championship Game and the BCS Championship Game in January, then the SEC will have engineered a repeat of the Bush-USC fiasco. In the process, it will also have destroyed the SEC’s credibility.

All bets are off on whether the student bodies and fan bases of TCU and Boise State co-sponsor a Torch and Pitchfork March on the SEC’s offices in Birmingham.  I’ll provide the refreshments if they decide to do it, though.

But the SEC’s new bylaw gives it the power to avoid even the risk of this happening. It could determine that the ESPN and New York Times stories establish facts that show the Newtons’ transgressions are a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of SEC and NCAA rules and regulations; that Newton’s eligibility as an amateur student-athlete has been compromised; and that Newton should not play until the matter is fully investigated and all facts are clearly and irrefutably established.

The integrity of the game, the credibility of the NCAA and SEC and the impacts to the other title contenders warrant swift and decisive action.



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