Several times during Missouri’s press conference responding to the denial of the school’s appeal of NCAA sanctions, an incensed Athletic Director Jim Sterk and Chancellor Alexander Cartwright danced around — but never quite reached — one particularly rebellious answer.
At one point, a reporter asked Sterk what he would have done differently if he had a do-over in the entire process — a process in which Missouri self-reported academic misconduct to the NCAA, got patted on the back for its cooperation then buzz-sawed with sanctions from the Committee on Infractions anyway, appealed the ruling and, finally, lost in Tuesday's consequential verdict. The sanctions, including postseason bans for football, baseball and softball, as well as recruiting limitations, scholarship reductions, vacated wins and financial ramifications, all were upheld.
Moments earlier, Sterk had said the NCAA’s “decision is just wrong.” But now he held firm. He said MU wouldn’t have done anything differently.
At other points, Cartwright dropped some fiery one-liners, such as, “This decision has made it difficult for us to determine what should be done whenever there is a compliance case,” and, “I’m not sure if (the NCAA) is currently encouraging or discouraging compliance and integrity,” and, “Sometimes you’re not rewarded for doing what’s right.”
Sterk’s attack got the most media attention: “The current system is broken.”
All great quotes, all substantial and angry and vindictive. But when hypotheticals came up again, the tone shifted again from victimized to virtuous, from wronged to righteous. “If we found out something was happening,” Cartwright said, “we would immediately self-report.”
Both were asked to clarify if they would cooperate again.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Cartwright said. Sterk followed, his voice a little wry: “It’s an NCAA rule.”
Therein lies the real damage of this result: The NCAA swung its iron fist at Missouri and didn’t care much what havoc it left behind. It left an SEC school’s athletic director throwing public haymakers right back, too afraid (or too smart) to explicitly say he would not cooperate if there is a next time, but not too reserved to discredit the benefit of cooperating in a roundabout way.
It left a damning imprint on Missouri, and it sent a message to other schools. A new national precedent: What good is there in being accountable?
Take MU’s example. Mike Glazier is the lawyer who represented Missouri in the appeal and advised the school to self-report in the first place. The Missourian asked Glazier on Wednesday what would have been different about the sanctions if MU had been caught without self-reporting.
“I think they’d have gotten a postseason ban,” Glazier said. “I don’t want to sound like a smart-aleck, but — oh! — they did get a postseason ban. I’m not sure that the penalties in this case would have been a whole lot different had they not self-reported, had the NCAA somehow picked up on this and discovered it.”
And Glazier indicated the NCAA probably would not have discovered this on its own. Here’s why: It should be noted that the Infractions Appeals Committee is a separate entity from the Committee on Infractions (COI), and both are separate from the NCAA enforcement staff that actually investigates violations before handing them off to the COI. The enforcement staff doesn’t have subpoena power or “a lot of tools that most law enforcement agencies have,” Glazier said. “They have to rely to a significant part on the cooperation of the membership. And when the membership is discouraged from cooperating, it makes (the enforcement staff’s) job a lot harder.”
Which is why the NCAA shot itself in the foot by not offering Missouri any relief from the most severe punishments. That doesn’t exactly encourage the membership to cooperate. So maybe that’s the new landscape: Better off just hoping you don’t get caught.
Glazier has a monopoly of sorts on representing athletic departments in these NCAA infractions cases. He told the Missourian that this appeal’s result won’t change how he advises schools to handle infractions in the future — his obligatory mantra for 30 years has been to self-report — but it will fog the confidence with which he can preach self-reporting.
“It does change my response when asked if meaningful credit is given for cooperation,” Glazier said. “Yesterday’s decision makes it clear there is no guarantee that cooperation will be recognized by the NCAA in a meaningful way ... While you’re doing the right thing, you don’t get any tangible credit for doing that.”
That’s a pretty dangerous standard for a collegiate sports organization whose reputation is already tarnished by a seemingly-bottomless list of disobedience from its membership. The ramifications of this ruling go way beyond an MU tutor taking tests for athletes. The NCAA is still trying to clean up systematic pay-to-play federal recruiting investigations, and its very authority is already at stake; state laws, like the one in California, are attempting to override the NCAA’s definition of “student-athletes” and whether they should be compensated.
Many coaches and recruiters already ignore what the NCAA has to say about that. So if the NCAA is telling Missouri that its “exemplary cooperation” hurts the school more than helps it ... well, then why should a college basketball coach think he’ll be better off following the rules and not paying a recruit?
And if the no-subpoena enforcement staff is so powerless without cooperation, why should the school think it’s better off turning itself in?
The NCAA’s stubbornness in the appeal only cemented a more chaotic future.
“The general opinion out there right now, even before this case,” said Glazier, who has spoken with numerous university presidents and athletic directors, “was mixed at best in terms of how much confidence they had in the process toward being treated fairly. And I think this Missouri decision has seriously eroded however much confidence there was.”
It doesn’t help that in this particular appeal process, MU was dragged through the mud for 300 days while its football players wondered for their entire season if they would get to play a bowl game. Now they finally know the answer, three days before what turns out will be their last game. No bowl on the line Friday for the 5-6 seniors. The thought of it nearly brought Sterk to tears during the press conference.
Think about this appeal like a replay review in a football game. If the call on the field was clearly correct, the review won’t take very long, and the referees will announce “the ruling on the field is confirmed.” If it isn’t that obvious, the review will take longer, and the ref’s language is different: “The call on the field stands.”
That was the case in both the length of Missouri’s appeal and in the language used by the Infractions Appeals Committee in Tuesday’s ruling. Remember again, the Infractions Appeals Committee is separate from the COI. Glazier interpreted the ruling to indicate that the Infractions Appeals Committee “would have arrived at a different penalty decision than the COI.” But there’s an abuse of discretion standard in overturning penalties. Basically, you need clear evidence to overturn the original call. Sound familiar? Glazier said the standard was just too strong.
They could not overturn the call on the field.
Call stands. And everyone impacted by the NCAA’s new anarchy wins.
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.