NCAA major infractions cases are often made out to be significant moments in NCAA history. When a big program is under investigation or in front of the Committee on Infractions, the NCAA is either going to finally get tough on violators or finally start treating schools fairly.
When Yahoo! Sports broke the Willie Lyles and Oregon case case way back in 2011, it certainly looked like this would actually be a landmark case in the COI’s history. Here was a rising program that had paid a significant sum of money to a third party for what appeared to be not his recruiting service, but his access to prospects. Just before the story broke, the NCAA had targeted third-party involvement in recruiting, and had zeroed in on sham recruiting services. New bylaws and stiff penalties (especially in men’s basketball) sought to cut off a way to launder and funnel money to people with influence over prospects. And here a major program looked like it was caught dead to rights.
Fast forward to 2013. The Oregon case dragged on, delayed by procedural wrangling as the school and enforcement staff tried, but failed, to come to a summary disposition agreement that pleased the Committee on Infractions. In the meanwhile, much changed about the NCAA’s enforcement program, both generally and specifically as it relates to recruiting services. An expanded COI, new penalty matrix, and new head coach responsibility bylaws take effect in just over a month. The recruiting service legislation got another change, with the NCAA now pre-approving services for use in football and basketball.
Whether Oregon got hammered or Oregon got off with a slap on the wrist made no difference. The case has no lasting impact. The NCAA has already promised (once again) to get tough on cheaters starting in August. The structure and composition of the COI will change, so even the personal views of these members are less relevant. And the ability of a recruiting service to be used as a money laundering operation is drastically reduced when the NCAA has to approve the services.
Had the enforcement staff brought the case up for a hearing as soon as possible after the investigation finished, in spring 2012, the stakes would have higher. But the delay in trying to seek summary disposition meant the case was heard in a different context. Now the COI is a bit of a lame duck, just passing the time until they are given new authority, new tools, and new members in August. Most of their attention has to be focused on Miami, another major issue that arose between when this case might have been heard and when it actually was.
In the end, it was a Committee on Infractions at the end of an era ruling on a case that could send little or no message that hadn’t already been sent, and interpreting a bylaw that was already out of date. The report reflects this, with more attention paid to Lyles’ recruiting as a booster than to the $25,000 he got for little or no scouting work. What looked to be a blockbuster showdown in 2011 ended up as simply clearing the decks for Miami and the new regime two years later.