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Should the NCAA Get Involved at Utah?

Yahoo! Sports has an in-depth investigative report on allegations of abuse and inappropriate conduct with student-athletes against former Utah swimming coach Greg Winslow. Winslow is also accused of sexual abuse of a swimmer in the Arizona State swim club when he was an assistant coach at ASU prior to his appointment at Utah.

After the Penn State scandal, the NCAA has been constantly questioned about whether it will get involved in wrongdoing in an athletic department that does not violate the core operating bylaws covering things like recruiting, academic eligibility, and amateurism. Mostly those have focused on criminal conduct like the ongoing Montana investigation or broadening the NCAA’s rules, as with North Carolina’s no-show classes scandal.

Like in the other cases, Winslow’s conduct seems to slip through the cracks in the NCAA Manual. An example is one punishment he used where athletes did underwater sprints while bound to a PVC pipe. The NCAA Manual does not generally regulate the way in which workouts are conducted. What is regulated is the length and timing of workouts. A simple reading of Bylaw 17, which covers playing and practice regulations, says that as long as the workouts were within the 20 hours per week and four hour per day limits, no NCAA rule was broken.

But like with Penn State, when something slips through the cracks, the NCAA has catch-alls. Bylaw 2.2.3, part of the NCAA Constitution, covers the health and safety of student-athletes:

It is the responsibility of each member institution to protect the health of, and provide a safe environment for, each of its participating student-athletes.

And Bylaw 2.2.4 focuses on the relationships between athletes and coaches:

It is the responsibility of each member institution to establish and maintain an environment that fosters a positive relationship between the student-athlete and coach.

The investigations into Winslow’s conduct could also be scrutinized as an issue of institutional control and monitoring. When student-athletes reported abusive behavior, it seems to have been dealt with exclusively within the athletic department until very recently. A pattern of complaints that was not recognized by athletic department officials and not eventually handled outside of the athletic department speaks to the level of oversight.

But NCAA involvement is always easier when there is a specific violation to start with. That gets the NCAA in the door, after which they can begin asking less specific questions. While the abusive behavior and relationships with student-athletes might not be addressed by any specific NCAA bylaw, one element of the Utah allegations is.

In addition to a number of athletes who quit the team or transferred, Winslow dismissed quite a few. If those athletes were on scholarships that were not renewed or cancelled, NCAA rules require that athletes be notified in writing and given the opportunity to appeal the cancellation of their scholarship to a group outside of the athletic department. One athlete, Vlas Lezin, says the athletic department did not help him when he appealed his dismissal from the team, although the article does not state if Lezin was on athletics aid.

It is a small detail, but it offers an excuse for the NCAA to poke around. If the NCAA found that athletic scholarships were not properly revoked, an investigation could expand quickly. That would be business as usual in an NCAA investigation. Or the NCAA could take the Penn State and establish it as a more meaningful precedent by looking into the abuse allegations themselves.

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