NCAA looks to police itself with review of enforcement policy

Milton Kent

October 29, 1991|By Milton Kent

Say whatever you will about the NCAA, but grant it this: Whenever someone threatens to change the tune, the NCAA always finds a way to stay in rhythm.

When there were grumblings in the air about the failure of schools to disclose their graduation rates, the NCAA beat Congress to the punch, passing its own legislation 11 months before the Capitol Hill Gang.

And now, when there are new complaints and pending federal and state legislation about the way the collegiate governing body penalizes those schools that are charged with infractions, wouldn't you know that the NCAA has gotten out in front of that one too?

"They waited until the posse was right on their tail," said Rep. Tom McMillen, D-Md.

McMillen was speaking of a series of recommendations made by a special panel commissioned by the NCAA to study its enforcement procedures.

The 11-member committee suggested a number of changes that, if carried through, would not only affect the way the NCAA does its business, but quite likely the way it is perceived by the public.

"This shows a strong willingness on the part of the organization to change and be fair," said Richard Schultz, the NCAA's executive director. "This is a genuine effort and not some kind of window dressing."

"I think this will bring more credibility to the process," said committee member Benjamin Civiletti, a Baltimore attorney, who served as Attorney General under President Carter. "At least now, the process will be subject to scrutiny."

Among the committee's more notable recommendations:

* The NCAA should adopt a policy that would allow alleged offending schools and the organization's enforcement staff to sit down and agree on what happened and on what penalties should be levied.

* An independent pool of retired federal and state judges should be retained to serve as impartial hearing officers, and those hearings should be opened to the public.

* Any pre-hearing statement from a potential witness in an infractions case must be recorded and the enforcement staff must notify the charged school of the existence of the tapes.

The procedures, if enacted by the NCAA Council, which meets next January, could shorten the process and allow more direct involvement by the school that is charged.

Under the proposals, a member of the NCAA's enforcement staff would meet with a school's chief executive officer to discuss an impending investigation, rather than inform him or her by mail.

From there, in the early stages of the investigation, if the two sides could agree on what happened and what penalties are appropriate, a summary disposition could be reached, avoiding what could be a nasty and costly battle between the NCAA and the offending school.

"Many times, people on either side of a case were fighting just for the sake of making white black or black white," said Civiletti. "Quicker knowledge of undisputed facts can make the process more effective."

Already, Brad Booke, legal counsel for Nevada-Las Vegas, has indicated that the school, whose men's basketball program has been a perpetual target of the NCAA's enforcement division, may be interested in settling its case, which includes 28 alleged violations.

"I think this is a very positive step to try and figure out a way to conclude the process by agreement," Booke said. "You could reach an agreement, take your penalty and get on with it."

If agreement could not be reached, the matter would then go to the independent hearing officer, who would hear the case in much the same fashion that a judge would. The officer would make a ruling on the facts presented and suggest a penalty if warranted to the Committee on Infractions, which would be the final arbiter of the case.

McMillen, a former Rhodes Scholar and All-American at Maryland who has been a frequent critic of the NCAA, said he was not certain how this proposed procedure would have affected the case at his alma mater.The basketball program was slapped with a two-year postseason ban in connection with a series of violations committed during the tenure of former coach Bob Wade.

But he offered that Maryland officials, who have claimed surprise over allegations of a lack of institutional control over the program, would have known about those charges from the beginning and been able to respond to them sooner.

"The charges were changed in the midnight hour and the university didn't have time to pull together the proper response before the appeals process," said McMillen.

The panel suggested that the NCAA's enforcement process, criticized for its perceived uneven handling of cases, has generally been as fair as it could be.

Where the NCAA has failed, according to Rex Lee, the committee's chair and former U.S. Solicitor General, is in making as many parts of the process as possible open to the public.

"When you don't know what is going on in a proceeding, you are sometimes inclined to think something worse is going on," said Lee, president of Brigham Young University.

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