FBI: “Hey, NCAA, You’re Still Pretty Bad at This”

“Operation Varsity Blues” once again proves that the FBI is the best enforcement staff the NCAA never asked for.

“We are here today to announce charges in the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.  We’ve charged fifty people nationwide with participating in conspiracy that involved–first–cheating on college entrance exams, including the SAT and the ACT–and second–securing admission to elite colleges by bribing coaches at those schools to accept certain students under false pretenses.  In return for bribes, these coaches agreed to pretend that certain applicants were recruited competitive athletes, when in fact they were not, as the coaches knew the students’ athletic credentials have been fabricated.”

In all, nine Division I coaches at Georgetown, Stanford, Texas, UCLA, USC, Wake Forest, and Yale we implicated in today’s indictments.

While you can read the details of the indictment and affidavit in support here, the summary of the bad conduct the NCAA should be concerned about can be boiled down to college coaches taking advantage of the admissions process for incoming students who were not student-athletes.  Yep.  In the ever-competitive world of Division I non-revenue generating sports, college coaches were taking payouts at least double, if not five or ten times, their salaries to help admit students who would have no impact on their programs (but every bit of impact on their wallet).

When student-athletes are recruited by an athletics program, coaches must ensure they will be admitted to the school before offering a spot on their team and/or a scholarship.  As the admission standards differ across schools, coaches are given different restrictions on the academic minimums prospective student-athletes must meet to be admitted to participate in athletics at the school.

A quick example of how this works.  When I worked as the assistant men’s tennis coach at Davidson College, one of my recruiting tasks was getting verified SAT scores and high school transcripts from recruits.  Once I received this information, I sent it to the Admissions Office for an “early read” on the recruit.  Admissions would then input the data into its system to generate certain metrics that decided whether the recruit had the academic profile to succeed at Davidson.  These “early reads” were often make-or-break for our recruits, as Davidson was unwilling to sacrifice its admission standards for the sake of athletics gain, and also, at the expense of a student.  Admitting a student who likely would not keep up in the classroom would be a future headache for the athletics department, coaching staff, professors, and administrators, but most importantly, it would be the biggest headache for the student, and that’s not what Davidson wanted.  We were forced to turn away a number of recruits as a direct result of this system.

Especially at the Division I level, however, coaches can often “slot” players into the school based on their potential athletic value to the university, even if their academic record would otherwise prohibit the student from being admitted.  This extra push is exactly what these indicted coaches took advantage of.

Instead of slotting valuable student-athletes based on their playing potential, these nine coaches slotted student-non-athletes based on their paying potential.  In exchange for an incoming student being judged on the “curved” admission standards for highly valuable student-athletes, these coaches received six-figure payouts.  And most non-revenue head coaches are not making much more than $100,000 per year.  This isn’t basketball or football, folks.

A fundamental tenet of the NCAA’s amateurism model is academic eligibility of both current and incoming student-athletes, which is codified in Article 14 of the Division I Manual.  The principle behind Article 14 is simple, a student-athlete must be academically eligible to participate in intercollegiate athletics competition for his or her institution.  Good academic standing generally entails a minimum credit hour and GPA requirement for both incoming and current students.

More specific to today’s indictments, however, is Bylaw 14.1.2, Validity of Academic Credentials, which states in full: “As a condition and obligation of membership, an institution is responsible for determining the validity of a student-athlete’s academic record. (1) Pre-Enrollment Academic Misconduct. A prospective student-athlete, student-athlete, representative of athletics interests or a current or former institutional staff member shall not: (a) Arrange for a false or inaccurate academic record (e.g., courses, grades, credits, transcripts, test scores) for a prospective student-athlete; or (b) Provide false, inaccurate or incomplete information to the NCAA or an institution regarding a prospective student-athlete’s academic record” (emphasis added).

Rest easy, everyone; this backdoor admissions scandal is not only a federal crime, it is also an NCAA violation! And the NCAA has proven that it takes its violations stemming from federal crimes seriously . . . once the FBI is done cleaning up, of course.

On the heels of last Friday’s decision in In re: NCAA Grant-in-Aid Cap Antitrust Litigation, where Judge Wilken permanently enjoined schools from restricting academically related compensation to student-athletes but kept a cap on non-academically related compensation, and on the eve of March Madness, the NCAA’s governance model is again under the microscope.

The beautiful irony of this story (for me at least) is that it is the polar opposite of the student-athlete compensation saga.  Where last year’s FBI indictments revealed coaches in revenue-generating sports bribing players to attend powerhouse athletics institutions with cash bribes sometimes left in movie theater garbage cans, this year movie actresses are writing non-revenue-generating coaches six figure checks to ensure their children are admitted to prestigious academic institutions so they can go to class.

The NCAA’s forthcoming statement on the matter will likely center on the lack on institutional control and failure to self-police by its institutions, and, most importantly, that it is in no way, the NCAA’s fault.

But that does not absolve the NCAA from all responsibility in the matter.  If you’re going to hold yourself out as a governing body, you should govern.  The NCAA doesn’t do that.  It forms spur of the moment committees to investigate how the integrity of college sports has been compromised and unanimously adopts more meaningless bylaws recommended by these committees to its already excessive rulebook.  Rules need to be enforced however.

And, once again, it appears the most effective enforcement staff the NCAA has is the FBI and the United States Attorneys’ Office. There is no doubt, the Department of Justice is the de facto police force of the NCAA.  Maybe its time for them to take over the whole operation.

Photo Credit: CNN.com


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