In the case of the NCAA vs. Missouri, transparency was grounds for a harsher punishment. Just ask athletic director Jim Sterk.
The Tigers’ football team was banned from competing in a bowl game this season as part of penalties announced Thursday by the NCAA following an investigation into academic fraud committed by a former tutor.
The NCAA found the tutor, Yolanda Kumar, “violated NCAA ethical conduct, academic misconduct and academic extra benefits rules when she completed academic work for 12 student-athletes,” according to a Division I Committee on Infractions panel.
Mizzou will appeal the decision, which includes three years of probation and one-year postseason bans, scholarship reductions and vacation of records for the football, softball and baseball teams for games in which the 12 athletes participated.
“The university moved swiftly and fully cooperated with the NCAA Enforcement staff to jointly investigate the allegations that were made,” Sterk said. “We are shocked and dismayed by the penalties that have been imposed today and will aggressively fight for what is right.
“The Committee on Infractions has abused its discretion in applying penalties in this case, and the university will immediately appeal this decision that has placed unfair penalties on our department and programs. It is hard to fathom that the university could be cited for exemplary cooperation throughout this case, and yet end up with these unprecedented penalties that could unfairly and adversely impact innocent current and future Mizzou student-athletes.”
Speaking with reporters on a conference call Thursday afternoon, Sterk said he was surprised the punishment included recruiting restrictions because the investigation didn’t stem from recruiting violations.
Sterk said that Missouri has retained attorney Michael Glazier as outside counsel for its appeal and has no idea how long the process will take. He felt optimistic about his department’s chances in the appeal process.
“We expect to win the appeal,” Sterk said.
The postseason ban is a blow to coach Barry Odom’s football program, which projects as a top 25 team with an outside chance to contend for the SEC East title next season. The Tigers are coming off two consecutive bowl appearances and added former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant and Arkansas wideout Jonathan Nance to bolster a strong returning core on offense.
The infractions committee recommended waiving the restrictions on Mizzou’s seniors should they decide to transfer. But Bryant will remain at Missouri, his personal coach Ramon Robinson told The Star.
Missouri’s softball team has made 12 consecutive NCAA regionals, although that streak was likely to end this season after the Tigers were picked to finish last in the SEC. Missouri baseball hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since joining the SEC in 2013. Sterk said those teams would be allowed to participate in the postseason while an appeal is ongoing.
In November 2016, Kumar told The Star she helped more than a dozen Mizzou student-athletes commit varying degrees of academic fraud. Although Kumar said she felt pressure to make sure athletes pass courses, the infractions committee did not find that Mizzou officials “directed her to complete the student-athletes’ work.”
“Although the tutor claimed to have felt pressure to ensure that student-athletes passed courses and believed her raise to be an overt acknowledgment and approval of her misdeeds,” the infractions panel wrote, “the record does not support a broader institutional scheme.”
Sterk concurred with that finding.
“It is important to note that this was the action of one individual, who acted unilaterally and outside of the expectations that we have established for our staff members,” he said.
But while Missouri asserted that it promptly detected and disclosed the violations, the enforcement staff disagreed.
“While Missouri promptly self-reported the violations, it did not promptly self-detect them. The offending conduct continued for one year,” the panel wrote, adding that if the tutor had not admitted her violations, Missouri would not have been aware of them.
David Roberts, chief hearing officer for the infractions committee panel and special adviser to the University of Southern California president, said Missouri’s punishment fit the standards of Level I infractions established by NCAA member schools.
“When a member institution comes forward and self reports (Level 1) violations there are consequences,” Roberts said. “Missouri self-reported and acknowledged responsibility. All of that factored in. but penalty guidelines put in place by the association control what we can and can’t do in terms of penalties.”
But did Missouri’s cooperation lead to a harsher punishment and could incentivize schools not to work with the NCAA, Roberts was asked.
“You could make that argument,” Roberts said. “Conversely, hopefully schools would accept responsibility like Missouri did.”
Sterk said Thursday’s ruling won’t change the way he handles future investigations but added, “that’s a sad day if it’s the world we live in,” after being told of Roberts’ comments.
Harsher penalties could be levied if a school doesn’t cooperate and is found guilty, Roberts said.
When Missouri agreed to cooperate with the investigation, Sterk figured the ruling would result in vacated wins and probation. He never expected postseason bans or scholarship reductions.
Roberts was asked to compare Missouri’s case with North Carolina, which in 2017 was found to have not violated NCAA rules despite the school acknowledging that academic fraud existed for 18 years in the form of “paper classes” taken by athletes.
The NCAA ruled that because the classes for made available to students who weren’t athletes, the UNC case was essentially a university failure and not a NCAA issue.
Only athletes were involved in the case at Missouri, and the school admitted to the violations.
The infractions panel concluded the Missouri case compares more closely to three others involving staff members completing work in place of the athletes — a 2017 incident at Northern Colorado in which a men’s basketball coach and members of his staff fulfilled homework for prospects; a 2016 incident at California State Northridge in which the director of basketball operations did the same; and a 2016 Georgia Southern case when a compliance officer provided a student with a flash drive that included completed coursework. “The tutor’s conduct is analogous with these cases,” the panel wrote.
In the Northern Colorado and Cal State Northridge cases, the men’s basketball team received one-year postseason bans, among other penalties. Georgia Southern was placed on two years’ probation and also lost two football scholarships, among lesser penalties.
The complete penalties issued against Missouri were:
▪ Three years of probation.
▪ A 10-year show-cause order for Kumar. During that period, any NCAA member school employing the tutor must restrict her from any athletically related duties.
▪ One-year postseason bans for the baseball, softball and football programs for their upcoming seasons.
▪ A vacation of records in which football, baseball and softball student-athletes competed while ineligible. The university must provide a written report containing the matches impacted to the NCAA media coordination and statistics staff within 45 days of the public decision release.
▪ A 5 percent reduction in the amount of scholarships in each of the football, baseball and softball programs during the 2019-20 academic year.
▪ Recruiting restrictions for each of the football, baseball and softball programs during the 2019-20 academic year, including: A seven-week ban on unofficial visits, a 12.5 percent reduction in official visits, a seven-week ban on recruiting communications, a seven-week ban on all off-campus recruiting contacts and evaluations, a 12.5 percent reduction in recruiting-person or evaluation days.
▪ A disassociation of the tutor, which Missouri has completed.
▪ A fine of $5,000 plus 1 percent of each of the football, baseball and softball budgets.
Kumar was unavailable for comment. She started tutoring for the Mizzou athletic department in the early 2000s while pursuing a master’s degree. In the summer of 2015, she said she felt pressured to help a basketball player pass a statistics class. Kumar received a pay raise that summer and believed it was tied to ensuring the player passed the class.
Within a week after Kumar admitted completing work for athletes on Nov. 2, 2016, she resigned, and Missouri notified an enforcement staff of the potential violations. Along with the enforcement staff, Missouri interviewed Kumar and investigated the allegations. After Kumar publicized her conduct she was asked to maintain confidentiality during the investigation.
Because she did not adhere to that — in March 2017, Kumar offered to sell details of the case in exchange for about $3,000 — the enforcement staff opted not to name her in the allegations.
On Jun 13, 2018, the panel conducted a hearing with representatives from Missouri and the enforcement staff. According to the panel, “Because (Kumar) was not a party to the case, she was not present to answer the panel’s questions. Following the hearing, the panel determined that the tutor should have been a party to the case.”
The panel requested Kumar be present for a new hearing, but she responded that they did not work because of employment obligations.
On Thursday night, Kumar tweeted out the names of three former football players she allegedly helped cheat as well as a former basketball player, while naming Mizzou athletics staff members who she claimed knew what she was doing.
The panel found Kumar completed an entire course for one student-athlete and did work for four student-athletes, three football players and a women’s soccer player, in a course through another school.
After discovering that, rather than reviewing the conduct under its own honor code, Missouri informed the other school of the infraction, which changed all four athlete’s grades to an F. The three football players still competed after the incident. The women’s soccer player did not play after the incident, according to the panel.
In another incident, two students took a course offered through Adams State. Missouri concluded the tutor more than likely completed all of the homework for one student-athlete and two-thirds of the homework for another. But Missouri did not review the violation under its own honor code, instead sending its findings to Adams State. Both athletes involved were football players and continued to play after the incident, the panel found.
Former Mizzou defensive lineman A.J. Logan is the only Tigers athlete who was publicly known to have been disciplined because of the fraud investigation. He served a six-game suspension in the 2017 season.