NCAA keeps lid on investigation

Sports overseers won’t talk nor let MU officials talk
about Ricky Clemons case
Tuesday, March 23, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:49 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

No one is saying how soon the National Collegiate Athletic Association will reveal details of its nearly 6-month-old investigation into MU’s troubled men’s basketball program.

The NCAA won’t discuss its investigation, and it also bars MU officials from discussing it. And even if investigators do discover the team violated NCAA rules, depending on how serious the infractions are, details might never be revealed.

“Some don’t ever get public and some do,” said Chuck Smrt, a former NCAA investigator and founder of the Compliance Group, a Lenexa, Kan., company that investigates athletic programs for colleges and universities. “It depends on the nature of the case.”

If the charges are serious and proved to be true, the details will probably be made public. But if violations are what the NCAA classifies as “secondary,” the particulars are almost never publicized, said Kay Hawes, an NCAA spokeswoman.

“If a case is major, an infractions report is released that contains findings and penalties,” Smrt said. “If a case is secondary, there’s no public announcement by the NCAA.”

The NCAA’s investigation began in September and reportedly involves allegations that several basketball players accepted cash payments from coaches Lane Odom and Tony Harvey. The NCAA also is reportedly investigating whether former Missouri basketball player Ricky Clemons received improper academic tutoring and earned an unreasonable number of summer college credits to attend MU.

The same allegations are at the center of the university’s own investigation, which began in January 2003, soon after Clemons was arrested on suspicion of choking his ex-girlfriend Jessica Bunge, a former MU student. After pleading guilty to false imprisonment and third-degree domestic assault, Clemons was sentenced to a 60-day work release program and probation, which he violated when he crashed an all-terrain vehicle at UM system President Elson Floyd’s residence in July. Clemons served the rest of his sentence in Boone County Jail.

In August, Floyd expanded the investigation by appointing MU engineering professor Michael Devaney to spearhead an independent probe into the

men’s basketball program. Devaney’s six-person committee was expected to issue a report in December, but has yet to do so. By December, jailhouse telephone recordings were released to the public, in which Clemons claimed he and several other players received cash handouts.

Harvey and Odom both have denied giving players money. In sworn depositions with Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane, basketball coach Quin Snyder denied having knowledge of cash payments to Missouri basketball players.

At this point, it is unclear whether the allegations against Missouri’s basketball program will result in major NCAA violations.

Earlier this month, the NCAA ruled that officials from Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C., tampered with athletes’ grades, which was deemed a major violation. Its basketball team was put on probation for three years and was expelled from this year’s postseason. The NCAA also issued secondary violations that the school exceeded the NCAA limits of financial aid to student athletes and poorly monitored its internal operations.

As a result, the NCAA suspended five scholarships from Gardner-Webb’s baseball, men’s soccer and men’s tennis teams and restricted paid official recruiting visits on its men’s and women’s basketball teams.

The NCAA’s Hawes said secondary violations are kept secret unless bundled with a major case because the NCAA encourages schools to seek out minor problems on their own, report them voluntarily and fix them.

“If a school was embarrassed every time they found a minor problem, they would not have the incentive to report it,” Hawes said.

Major violations, Hawes said, are all the others, or those that provide “an extensive recruiting or competitive advantage.”

For example, in one of the most recent cases with major violations, the NCAA found in February that St. Bonaventure University’s former president ignored warnings from the athletic department that one of the team’s star players was academically ineligible. As a result, the NCAA put the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team on three years probation and banned the team from this year’s NCAA Tournament. The school in is St. Bonaventure, N.Y.

One thing is certain, though, from Maryland to Michigan to Missouri most colleges and universities facing major violations must meet with the NCAA’s infractions committee, an independent 10-member judicial board. The NCAA’s Committee on Infractions is composed of seven employees of Division I universities and three attorneys, who typically meet six times a year for hearings, to deliberate on cases and deliver verdicts.

The committee’s next meeting is April 16-18, in Indianapolis, Ind., home to NCAA headquarters. NCAA bylaws bar officials from saying whether MU’s case is on the docket.

Typically, many months — occasionally years — go by before colleges reach the infractions committee. Meanwhile, the NCAA enforcement team’s 16 field detectives visit campuses across the country to conduct interviews with coaches, athletes and any others involved. The enforcement staff acts as the NCAA’s detective force, while the infractions committee is its judicial board. It is imperative that the two bodies remain separate to avoid conflicts of interest, Hawes said.

“We think it’s quite crucial because the committee on infractions is really the fact-finding body,” Hawes said.

Cooperation between universities and the NCAA has become increasingly common as universities frequently perform joint investigations with the NCAA.

Marking a shift in the NCAA’s investigatory process was a landmark case in 1987 banning Dallas’ Southern Methodist University’s football program from competition for two years, said David Swank, a law professor at Oklahoma University and chairman of the NCAA’s infractions committee from 1991 to 1999.

In 1987, SMU received what is commonly known as the “death penalty” after it was determined that coaches gave 21 football players more than $60,000 in cash payments. The death penalty is the NCAA’s “repeat violator rule,” which means an athletic program can be banned from competition for committing major violations twice within five years.

“There was probably more stonewalling in earlier times and finally it became apparent that schools are better served if they would become actively involved in the investigations,” Swank said. “Most of the time, once the university learns that something has occurred, they basically start their own investigation. And most of the time, it’s done in conjunction with the NCAA.”

After SMU, universities began recognizing the importance of cooperating with the NCAA with the hope of ultimately reducing penalties, Swank said.

Swank said there’s no way to predict how long NCAA investigations will take. It depends on the number and seriousness of the allegations, how many people are involved, and whether the athletes being questioned are still in school, he said.

Once the NCAA enforcement staff finishes its investigation, it will send MU a “notice of allegations,” giving school officials 90 days to explain what violations they believe are true and which they believe are false.

The NCAA holds the burden of proof during hearings, Swank said. The committee will deliberate and typically make a verdict the same day, although the official report won’t be released until six to eight weeks later.

Floyd, MU Athletic Director Mike Alden, Associate Athletic Director Sarah Reesman and UM system lawyers Bill Arnet and Marvin “Bunky” Wright met with the NCAA in early December to discuss the investigation. After the meeting, Floyd gave no details about their conversations, but said he felt optimistic that no academic violations occurred.

The NCAA’s investigation is now nearly 6 months old and almost three months overdue. If the investigation takes more than a year, the enforcement staff will have to ask the infractions committee for more time.

If MU gets a hearing before the infractions committee this year, it will take place in April, June, August or December. But for now, no one will say.

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