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A Better Explanation of the Rose and Thomas Cases

ESPN’s Andy Katz asked the NCAA about the Lance Thomas case. Specifically Katz asked why there was a difference between the Thomas case, where he refused to cooperate with the NCAA’s investigation into his jewelry purchase and Memphis’s 2009 major infractions case where Derrick Rose refused to discuss his potentially fraudulent SAT test.

The response from the NCAA’s Stacy Osburn leaves a lot be desired. Part of the problem is that the Memphis case presented tough questions to the Committee on Infractions which did not answer them well in the public report. But the explanation of the distinction, instead of clearing things up, contributes to the public’s confusion about the NCAA. Here is the quote from Osburn.

“You can’t tell someone you violated a rule if they’re not a member of the NCAA or if there is no other evidence to suggest a rule was broken. If there was a major violation there has to be evidence. It can’t just be he said/she said. If you have folks who have information and they haven’t said anything like an agent or a jeweler they don’t fall under NCAA rules. So they don’t have to talk to you. If they’re no longer a student athlete they don’t have to, either unless the school says it will disassociate you from the school. We don’t have the subpoena power so we can only do so much.”

First of all, he said/she said is evidence. Testimony of someone is evidence, even if it is not very good evidence. If the jeweler in the Thomas case had spoken to the NCAA and provided testimony that Thomas committed an NCAA violation, then the enforcement staff can go with that. They just (hopefully) run the risk of that testimony being shot down by the Committee on Infractions. But in the Thomas case, no one said anything.

The bigger problem with this explanation is revealed when Andy Katz boils it down:

Translate: The NCAA claims it had other evidence in the Rose-Memphis standardized test case (it ultimately forced Memphis to vacate the 2008 Final Four) without talking to Rose but didn’t have anything else in the Thomas case and never got Thomas to talk.

We know what the other evidence is, because it is in the Committee on Infraction’s report from the Memphis case. The NCAA retained a forensic handwriting expert to evaluate Rose’s SAT, who determined that it was “probably” not Rose’s work. So on that basis, Osburn’s explanation is technically correct.

But this is too simplistic and contributes to one of the NCAA’s biggest public relations issues. Any time two things happen in the NCAA, no matter how different, fans and the media will seize on any similarity to compare the two and demand an explanation of a different outcome. The Rose and Thomas cases are so different that they really cannot be compared at all.

The key fact is that we know Derrick Rose was ineligible at some point. When ETS cancelled his SAT in May 2008, he was at the very least ineligible at that time. It is true that the test score was invalidated and Rose was rendered ineligible based on his lack of response. But it was ETS that made that ruling, not the NCAA.

So the question before the Committee on Infractions was not whether Rose was ineligible. Rather, the question was given that Rose was not confirmed as ineligible until after the season, how should the COI handle it? There were three theories discussed or alluded to in the report:

  1. Strict Liability: Because Rose’s test score was invalidated, he was never eligible, and Memphis is responsible for that no matter what.
  2. Memphis’s Negligence: Memphis was alerted to the possibility of discrepancies in Rose’s academic record and did not investigate thoroughly enough.
  3. Rose’s Culpability: There is enough evidence to prove that Rose cheated on the SAT and knew he cheated, rendering him ineligible when he lied by signing the Student-Athlete Statement.

But Theory #3 is out because while the report says the enforcement staff initially charged Rose with an unethical conduct violation, the Committee on Infractions never got to it:

Ultimately, the committee concluded that it did not need to make a determination as to whether student-athlete 1 engaged in unethical conduct as defined in NCAA Bylaw 10.1 with respect to the alleged fraudulent completion of his SAT.

The report then drops the strict liability language, which is supported by NCAA Bylaw But then, confusingly, the Committee on Infractions did two things which back the theory that the Memphis case is not about strict liability. First, the portion of the hearing which the report quotes in support of strict liability suggests that the COI believed Memphis did know Rose was ineligible:

COMMITTEE MEMBER: Even if they had not known and his score was later cancelled, it will be the same problem. It is not about what they did or didn’t do. I am only saying they had some information that there could have been a problem, and they proceeded after the fact.

Second, the section of the report dealing with Rose’s SAT cites NCAA Bylaw, which says:

When an ineligible student-athlete participates in an NCAA championship and the student-athlete or the institution knew or had reason to know of the ineligibility, the NCAA Committee on Infractions may assess a financial penalty.

The report says this was a “‘strict liability’ situation”. But it uses for support a discussion about strict liability as only a hypothetical, then imposes on Memphis a penalty which they should only get if they knew or should have known Rose was ineligible.

All of this is not just to point out that the Memphis case report is a mess, which it is. It is in the service of explaining that the questions presented by Derrick Rose’s cancelled SAT score are fundamentally different than those presented by Lance Thomas’s jewelry purchase. One deals with an affirmative obligation of an athlete that it was determined he did not meet after the fact. The other involves deciding whether or not an athlete did something he should not have done, and how big of a leap the NCAA should be willing to make.

Reducing these cases to “the athlete refused to talk” oversimplifies both of them, but especially the Memphis case. And between the poor explanation in the Memphis report and this response from the NCAA to Andy Katz about the two cases, the NCAA is contributing to the problem rather than helping the public understand the nuances of NCAA rules and infractions.

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