Sunday, 25 March 2012

"Tar Heel Tear Down": UNC Sanctions and Implications for the U

The long anticipated sanctions handed down to the University of North Carolina on March 12th were yet another blow to a major college program in what has been a decade replete with NCAA sanctions. In the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) alone, thirty-seven programs have been sanctioned to some degree over the past ten years. Of those thirty-seven programs, four were banned from postseason play, eighteen were stripped of scholarships, fourteen faced recruiting restrictions, and all were given probation. Accompanying these sanctions, six show-cause orders have been issued, preventing the inculpated coach from working at the college level without NCAA approval.

The UNC case follows the well-documented sanctions delivered to the University of Southern California (USC) in 2010 and the Ohio State University (OSU) in 2011. USC was stripped of its 2004 National Championship, forced to vacate its 2005 season, and given a two-year postseason ban. OSU was saddled with probation, a one-year postseason ban, and a reduction in football scholarships. In both the USC and OSU cases, part of the violations stemmed from coaches who had knowledge of violations and either fostered continued non-compliance, or did not take proper preventative measures. As UNC recently learned, staff transgressions prompt stiff punishment.

As described by the NCAA’s Public Infractions Report, UNC’s violations stemmed from three separate circumstances: (1) a former tutor committing academic fraud with student-athletes and providing impermissible benefits to student-athletes; (2) the provision of impermissible benefits to student-athletes by various individuals, including sports agents and their associates; and (3) unethical conduct by a former assistant coach. The report links at least eleven former student-athletes to a variety of improprieties occurring while members of the UNC football team. John Blake, the implicated Assistant Coach, had a working relationship with now deceased sports agent Gary Wichard, and reportedly steered players toward his agency.

For these indiscretions, UNC was given a one-year postseason ban, prohibiting the team from playing in the 2012 ACC championship game and any subsequent bowl game. The program was also placed on probation for three years, and stripped of five scholarships for each of the next three years. Blake was issued a three-year show cause order. The University had already placed its football program on a two-year probation, cut three scholarships per year for three years, and vacated wins from the 2008 and 2009 seasons, but the NCAA viewed these self-imposed sanctions as insufficient and issued the dreaded postseason ban.

Interestingly, what is absent from this Infractions Report, is punishment for UNC directly tied to a failure to monitor social media, which was a charge in the Notice of Allegations. It is clear that at least one violation (receipt of impermissible benefits by Marvin Austin) would have been discovered by even a cursory review of his Twitter account. The Infractions Committee, however, declined to impose a blanket duty on institutions to monitor social media. Instead, the Committee held that a duty to monitor social media may arise if an institution has a reasonable suspicion of rules violations by an individual student-athlete. The Committee concluded its comments relative to social media monitoring by punting to schools and conferences: “[i]f the membership desires that the duty to monitor social networking sites extend further than we state here, the matter is best dealt with through NCAA legislation.” For a more detailed discussion of monitoring social media, see my recent law review article published by the University of Mississippi School of Law: “ ‘Student-Athlete.O’ Regulation of Student-Athletes’ Social Media Use: a Guide to Avoiding NCAA Sanctions and Related Litigation.”

The sanctions that were leveled against UNC are generally consistent with those imposed upon USC, OSU and others, and may provide a glimpse into future punitive action by the NCAA. The investigation that bears monitoring in the coming months is the well-documented allegations against the University of Miami. In the shocking account detailed in a Yahoo! Sports August report, Nevin Shapiro, a former University booster, claims that from 2002 to 2010 he provided impressible benefits to seventy-two players including: prostitutes, jewelry, travel, and even funds for an abortion after a player allegedly impregnated a stripper. According to the report, at least seven Miami staff members knew about the benefits being conferred, and some even steered athletes toward Shapiro.

If these allegations prove true, penalties against Miami will assuredly exceed those levied against UNC because if these precedential cases prove anything, it’s that complicit knowledge amongst coaching staff members is reprehensible in the eyes of the Association. Misdeeds by authority figures entrusted with the care of student-athletes implicate an institution far more than the exploits of teenagers and rogue outsiders. If even a fraction of the egregious acts alleged in the Miami case are substantiated, a multiple-year post season ban is likely, and numerous coaches may find themselves strapped with a show-cause penalty. Presently, much attention is paid to providing proper compliance education to student-athletes, but in light of these cases, institutions may need to start devoting more resources for compliance education of coaches and support staff, and not just the athletes working under their tutelage.

Hat tip to law clerks Brian Konkel and Gabriela Schultz for their work on this piece.

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