'Bama Demolishes the COI in Rebuttal

Today the University of Alabama released its rebuttal to the NCAA Committee on Infractions' response to the University's appeal. The story you're likely reading from the major news outlets this afternoon is one like this:

According to documents released Tuesday, the NCAA in responding to Alabama's textbook appeal called Alabama a "serial repeat violator" with an "abysmal infractions track record" and an "extensive recent history of infractions cases unmatched by any other member institution in the NCAA."

Most of the articles that I've seen on the topic have been couched in thinly-veiled (some more thinly than others) "ha ha, those cheating Bammers" type language. The reason isn't any sort of media conspiracy, though, it's just laziness on the part of reporters rushing to get their story out.

If you're not up to speed on this whole deal, go check out A Primer on the NCAA Sanctions and The University's NCAA Appeal. The executive summary is this: a small handful of Alabama players thought they were taking advantage of the University by getting some extra textbook rentals. The NCAA imposed sanctions well in excess of anything that they had in the past for similar violations and the University took umbrage with that.

The Appellate Process

The NCAA's appellate process is one with which I have only a passing and academic familiarity with, I'm not your compliance attorney, keep that in mind when reading what follows. A common sentiment I've seen from 'Bama fans in the wake of these news reports is adequately summed up by DocFumbles in this fanpost.

I think we made some very good points, although when you appeal to the NCAA, I find no reason to believe they'll do anything about it. They have no oversight and seem to blindly do as they please, as with the Florida State case.

In a sense, this is accurate, but it misses a subtle distinction in the NCAA infractions process that you might or might not believe is important, depending on your level of cynicism. That distinction is this:

The NCAA's appellate body is separate and distinct from the Committee on Infractions. Which is to say that while, in a certain sense, we're appealing the NCAA's decision back to the NCAA, that is much like saying that when you're found guilty of a crime, you appeal that decision back to the state. Technically true, but it misses the point.

The bottom line is that the appeals committee is a different group of people from the COI and the group that handles the appeals has no reason to defer to the COI in any way, shape, or form. They improve the station of the NCAA not by backing the Committee on Infractions at every turn, but by keeping the COI in line.

The order of events goes something like this:

  1. COI releases findings and sanctions
  2. Alabama files an appellate brief, asking the appeals committee to take certain action
  3. The COI files a response brief, attempting to defend the claims made by Alabama's response
  4. Alabama is permitted to file a rebuttal to that response
  5. The appeals committee reads all of the relevant documents and renders some decision

Right now, we're talking about the documents produced by steps #3 and #4 while we wait for #5.

The COI's Response

I'm having a difficult time locating a copy of the NCAA COI's response to Alabama's appeal, but what I can infer about it from Alabama's rebuttal and the news stories is not pretty. From what I can tell, the bottom line is that the COI must have realized, after reading Alabama's appeal, that they completely botched the sanctions portion of the case and that Alabama's compliance department had made them look awfully silly.

So, instead of attempting to salvage some semblance of fairness and rebut Alabama's insistence that the penalties were an abuse of discretion, the COI resorted to using 25-cent words and calling names.

Alabama's rebuttal to this response is beautiful, on-message, and really does a marvelous job of not only reiterating its main points from the appeal but also exposing the COI's response for what it is: an attempt to distract from the real legal issues present in the University's appeal.

(If I happen to find a copy of the response, I'll update this post)

The University of Alabama's Rebuttal

Alabama's rebuttal can be found here in PDF format. If this issue is even remotely interesting to you, you should take some time to check it out. It is only 14 double-spaced pages, and really does (in my opinion) a good job of putting things in perspective. It's really a fantastic read.

In fact, the first two paragraphs accurately sum up the major issues with the NCAA COI's response:

The brief submitted on behalf of the Committee on Infractions ("COI") in this matter is distinctive in two respects: an omission and an addition. First and most strikingly, the COI Brief omits any discussion of other textbook cases that have come before the NCAA, a factor which is both relevant and necessary for the determination of whether the penalty in this case is an abuse of discretion. The fact that no vacation-of-wins penalty was entered in any prior textbook case is a fact which cannot be avoided, and a fact which warrants a reversal of that unprecedented penalty in this case.

Second, the COI Brief compounds its initial error of omission with an error of addition, adding a justification for its vacation-of-wins decision beyond that set out in the Public Infractions Report. That purported justification -- the University's status as a repeat violator -- is not a stated basis for the actual decision of the COI; is contrary to the statements made by the COI during its oral explanation of its decision; and, even if supported by the decision, would be further evidence of an abuse of discretion, as it ignores bylaws and precedent addressing repeat violator penalties.

That's how you absolutely dismantle a response brief in two simple paragraphs. The rebuttal goes on for 12 more pages to go over these things in detail -- including directly addressing the allegation that the University's history of infractions is "unmatched by any other institution" (turns out that's not even close to accurate), pointing out that the COI completely ignored the biggest problem with their initial sanctions, and generally making the folks who wrote the COI response look like they had no idea what the hell they were doing.

I'm not sure what has changed in our compliance department since 2002, but in a lot of ways the change is not dissimilar to the change in the football program. Even our lawyers have gotten their swagger back.

Conclusion

I've said before that I really believe that the appeals committee has to reverse the vacation of wins. I was concerned that the COI would, upon having their precedent issue exposed, come up with a good justification and give the appeals committee an out to come down on their side. After seeing all this, though, it seems pretty clear (at least to me) that the appeals committee can't possibly find against Alabama without establishing new precedent for all future infractions proceedings. The COI in this case was so far out of bounds, that to uphold their decision would essentially be giving them carte blanche to do whatever they want, and that's something I find it difficult to believe that the appeals committee would actually do.

That said, attempting to predict what any branch of the NCAA will do is a dangerous endeavor, so don't go adding those wins back to your stat books just quite yet.

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