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Unexpected Stop in Muhammad Case Illustrates NCAA Process

Before Enes Kanter’s eligibility case, the NCAA rarely, if ever, made announcements for secondary violations, student-athlete reinstatement decisions, or initial eligibility certifications. The trend is increasingly more common now. And the latest is the NCAA’s release on the eligibility of Shabazz Muhammad. But it is this seemingly confusing list from the LA Times that is the most revealing part of the saga:

  1. UCLA, even though it has accepted the facts of the case, could disagree that a violation occurred and appeal. The case then would go to an NCAA appeals committee. If the committee sided with UCLA, Muhammad would probably become eligible immediately.But if it ruled that a violation did occur, the appeal would be denied and Muhammad would have to go through a reinstatement process to regain his eligibility.
  2. UCLA could accept that there was a violation and go immediately to reinstatement process.

Aside from the challenges the NCAA faces in obtaining information, which the association cites in its release, this is the biggest reason that initial amateurism eligibility cases take so long. Once an amateurism case goes beyond the automatic computer review or a cursory look by an staff member, it enters a process with three stages:

  1. Fact-finding (i.e. What happened?)
  2. Interpretation (i.e. Was it a violation?)
  3. Reinstatement (i.e. What penalties?)

At each stage, every issue must be settled before the case can move forward. The school and athlete cannot go back and bring up old issues. Normally this occurs when the NCAA and the school agree to move forward. They agree on the facts, agree that a violation occurred, or (less often) agree on the penalty.

If there is disagreement though, the school has an appeal opportunity at each level. Factual disagreements are settled by the Amateurism Fact-Finding Committee. Interpretative issues go to the Legislative Review and Interpretations Committee. And penalty decisions can be appealed to the Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement.

The reason for this sometimes protracted and halting process is to increase confidence that a decision truly is final and because it some cases it will be faster. Imagine if the NCAA and UCLA agreed to some preliminary set of facts, but when the penalty decision did not go UCLA’s way, the school decided to bring up new facts it found along the way and retry every aspect of the case.

This is one (of many) reasons why simply moving NCAA investigations to some unnamed third-party does not solve the issue. The better questions to ask is what should happen to UCLA and Muhammad while the case is pending. Perhaps putting UCLA at risk of nullification rather than vacating games and suffering additional punishment is a better answer than having Muhammad continue to sit out of competition.

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