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Length of Investigation Cost NCAA As Much As Intervening Events in Miami Case

Sports Illustrated’s Stuart Mandel wrote about the Miami decision and how events during the case changed public perception of the NCAA as a whole:

  • The Jerry Sandusky/Penn State child abuse revelations, which reset the bar considerably as to what constitutes a “scandal” in college athletics
  • The Ed O’Bannon v. the NCAA case and the increased level of media criticism surrounding the organization’s longstanding amateurism model
  • A general erosion of confidence in both Emmert and the NCAA’s enforcement arm, exacerbated by the organization’s admission last winter of investigative misconduct in the Miami case
  • NCAA infractions fatigue, a feeling that’s increased recently in the wake of the tattoo scandal at Ohio State, academic fraud at North Carolina, a “recruiting service” at Oregon, CouchGate at Boise State and more

Set aside the third, regarding the NCAA’s enforcement program and the misconduct which directly affected the Miami case. There are counter arguments to each of the other three. The NCAA’s sanctions against Penn State prompted many to respond that the association should only focus on clear violations of its bylaws, cases like Miami’s. Many of the same critics of the NCAA’s amateurism model also adopt a “rules are rules even if you don’t like the rules” approach, as seen during the Johnny Manziel investigation. And infractions fatigue has not stopped demands for the NCAA to get more involved, particularly in the North Carolina academic scandal.

No one, not even the NCAA, will dispute that the association’s image has taken a beating over the last couple years. Despite that, the biggest problem with the length of the Miami investigation was not all the things that happened in the meantime. The biggest problem is the delay itself.

During a long and high profile NCAA investigation, public opinion goes through five stages:

  • Shock: “Look at what School X did!”
  • Acceptance: “Every school does what School X did.”
  • Anger: “Why isn’t the NCAA doing anything about School X?”
  • Frustration: “Would the NCAA just make a decision on School X already?”
  • Response: “School X was unfairly hammered/let off with a slap on the wrist.”

If the public is allowed to ride this entire roller coaster, the odds that the response will be proportional to the sanctions are essentially zero. Compare the response to the USC and Miami sanctions with say Georgia Tech’s 2011 infractions case. While very different cases, Georgia Tech’s sanctions could have produced a negative response, given the minor underlying violation. But when there is no chance to think if a school might get away with something, the attitude seems to be “How did you think you could get away with that?”

The limit for the NCAA seems to be about one year, give or take based on the violations and rules involved. It took just under a year between news breaking that Bruce Pearl had lied to NCAA investigators about recruiting violations to the Committee on Infractions’s decision. The reaction to the decision at the time was fairly reasonable: Pearl broke a fundamental and important NCAA rule, and he received an appropriate harsh punishment.

The problem for the NCAA going forward is that the enforcement staff only has so much control over how long an investigation is perceived to be. Perception will always be that an investigation starts when news of possible violations is reported and ends with the COI decision or appeal decision. The more complete the news report about a violation, the shorter the NCAA will have before the public demands closure. That means not just getting out ahead of the media but also having the rest of the NCAA work to avoid delays.

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