Tom Yeager loves the same things about college sports we all do. Competition, passion and spirit at all levels, and it could argued that his feelings run deeper than most because Yeager has spent a good chunk of his career in thankless roles that often found him the target of angry fans.
He worked as an investigator in the NCAA’s enforcement department and later served as director of legislative services when the NCAA was based in Overland Park. Yeager spent nine years on the infractions committee — three as chairman — listening to school officials and coaches explain cheating and handing out punishments.
“For people who do this and have done this, to be asked to serve in an impartial position and accept the responsibility knowing that the decisions will affect careers and institutions, well, I took it as a compliment that I would be considered,” said Yeager, who is commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association. “People have to be willing to step up and help protect college sports.”
Which is why last week was a rocky one for Yeager and others in college sports who have performed in similar leadership roles.
NCAA president Mark Emmert announced that the NCAA would investigate itself after uncovering “a very severe case” of improper conduct by its enforcement staff in the investigation of alleged rules violations at the University of Miami.
The recap: NCAA investigators were present at two depositions in the bankruptcy case of Nevin Shapiro, who claims to have lavished gifts on Miami athletes. The NCAA, which does not have subpoena power, said its investigation was partly based on information it shouldn’t have had access to.
Until the external investigation of its own misconduct is finished, the NCAA has put on hold its investigation of Miami, which includes alleged wrongdoing by then-basketball coach Frank Haith, who is now Missouri’s coach.
The whole thing is a mess and could take weeks to sort out, but the ramifications are far-reaching. It’s reasonable to wonder if the NCAA’s credibility in enforcement is damaged beyond repair.
And if so, then what?
“Certainly the integrity of the process is critically important,” said Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman, who has served on the NCAA board of directors. “This is a membership organization. We all agree to the rules and expect everybody to follow them.
“In order for the system to work you have to have some trust and confidence both that your fellow institutions will follow the rules and secondly that the NCAA will do a fair job of enforcing them where institutions don’t.
“If that trust and credibility is broken, then I think the system largely falls apart.”
The system felt broken last week, especially on the heels of some investigative embarrassments over the past year.
UCLA freshman basketball star Shabazz Muhammad, the subject of an investigation over unofficial recruiting visits, was cleared to play when it was learned the boyfriend of an investigator had bragged on an airplane flight that the NCAA was going to find him ineligible. The conversation was overheard by another passenger and the NCAA dropped the case against Muhammad.
Southern California football coach Todd McNair, a former Chiefs running back, is suing the NCAA for a “malicious and one-sided investigation” against him. McNair was given a show-cause penalty, essentially banning him from college coaching for a year, for his role in the benefits scandal involving former Trojans running back Reggie Bush. The NCAA tried to get to get the case thrown out, but a Los Angeles judge ruled it can continue.
The streak of questionable integrity continued with Emmert’s announcement about the Miami investigation, and critics pounded the NCAA. Some suggested subcontracting its investigation division as it does with drug-testing. Some called for Emmert to step down.
Both are unlikely outcomes, but the recent events also have cast a light on the NCAA investigation process. The NCAA doesn’t have the power of subpoena or ability to compel a witness who is outside the NCAA’s jurisdiction to testify.
“The NCAA is hamstrung without subpoena power,” said Janet Justus, a Kansas City attorney and college sports consultant who has worked in college athletic compliance. “It’s a reason why member schools voluntarily submit to NCAA investigations.”
Still, as Yeager said, the NCAA has advantages.
“We at least have the ability to walk into our schools,” he said. “They have to talk to talk to us. They can throw (journalists) out the door.”
The NCAA has investigated Miami for nearly two years, and allegations involving the football and men’s basketball programs became widely known after Yahoo Sports published Shapiro’s allegations in August 2011.
This month, Emmert announced that the NCAA had streamlined its rules manual, making it, as the NCAA announced, “more flexible … and based on common sense.” Some recruiting restrictions were eased and some travel expenses for athletes would be made available.
The changes were largely applauded, and more reforms, like stipend money for athletes that had been tabled a year earlier, seemed promising.
Last October, he NCAA adopted a more open and expedited enforcement process, with stiffer and more predictable penalties to remove the risk-reward calculation “that has tempted people — often because of the financial pressures to win at all costs — to break the rules in the hopes that either they won’t get caught or that the consequences won’t be very harsh if they do get caught,” Emmert said.
Do the events of last week change that ideal? No, Emmert said.
“My intent is to ensure our investigatory functions operate with integrity,” he said.
But at least in the moment, NCAA investigation and enforcement seems weakened by the events.
“The sad part is, it’s going to make an already difficult job more difficult,” Yeager said. “It’s going to raise questions about motives, and it’s going to make things cloudy. It’s really unsettling when something happens that calls the whole thing into question.”