The news that Syracuse’s men’s basketball team is under NCAA investigation is not that surprising. The Orange has perfected the art of the “March Surprise”, with news of some misfortune or scandal dropping days or even hours before the NCAA tournament starts the last two years. And there had been some smoke around the Syracuse basketball program for some time now.
The surprising part is just how big this investigation is. According to Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com, the investigation has been going on for “years” and covers just about every NCAA rule:
The ongoing investigation has apparently grown larger in scope. When asked to characterize how wide-ranging the probe might be, a source with knowledge of the case told CBSSports.com: “Throw a dart at the [NCAA] Manual [and you would hit a violation by Syracuse].”
A high-profile program. A long, protracted investigation. Wide-ranging potentially serious violations. This story is starting to sound familiar.
The Syracuse investigation is starting to sound ominously like the Southern California and Miami investigations. That is not to say that Syracuse will definitely be facing the same charges and potential penalties as those football programs, but the problems in those investigations. The Miami investigation issues are well publicized and the USC case has lingering questions surrounding the evidence and methods used to connected USC assistant coach Todd McNair to Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels.
Getting involved in another all-encompassing investigation seems like a mistake for the NCAA. These are starting to look like lose-lose propositions. They take so long that fans and the media feel like the school suffers enough before any penalties are announced. They almost never live up to the hype. And trying to connect so much behavior to support a lack of institutional control charge requires making a number of logical leaps.
As the NCAA breaks in a new Committee on Infractions and penalty structure as well as attempting a reform of the enforcement staff itself, this is one easy reform. Instead of trying to build and support multi-faceted cases that at best are difficult to maintain and at worst look like witch hunts, the NCAA should work to make infractions cases as small as possible.
For example, every sport should automatically get its own enforcement case. USC’s case should have been a minimum of three: football, men’s basketball and women’s tennis. Miami should be at least two. And if there are allegations involving football in the Syracuse case, those should be broken out.
This concept could go one step further and separate different rules into different cases. The recent Saint Mary’s case is a good example. Part of the case involved extra benefits and impermissible recruiting by a former coach. The other part of the case involved impermissible workouts and use of outside consultants. The two parts of the case are almost totally independent (more on the almost in a second) and could be heard separately.
Overarching issues could be yet another case. Once a school is found guilty of two separate major violations (or one that was serious enough), charges of failure to monitor or lack of institutional control could be brought. Same for head coaches who could face failure to monitor and failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance charges. Unethical conduct hearings could be on their own and brought immediately if a coach, student-athlete, or staff member lies to investigators.
The benefits include giving the NCAA a narrower set of more manageable issues to investigate. Progress can be shown more easily; instead of waiting for one giant case to be prepared, smaller pieces can be brought as soon as they are ready. And issues about institutional responsibility and procedures can be separated from the conduct of staff and the underlying violations themselves.
The downside is that bringing multiple, smaller cases will be more painful for schools when a host of violations are discovered. Instead of dealing with uncertainty for a year, Miami might have dealt with a series of guilty verdicts from the Committee on Infractions. Switching to bite-size cases also does not prevent misconduct from happening, but it might reduce the temptation to break protocol to get the info that “blows a case wide open”. It also could help define and limit the damage to a case when a problem occurs.
The NCAA is widely acknowledged to be working with one hand tied behind their back on investigations given an out-manned enforcement staff and no subpoena power. Instead of simply lamenting that fact, the NCAA should be smarter about how it pursues investigations and the type of cases it can reasonably manage.