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We're appealing, but appealing what and with what rationale?

By now it is old news that we have decided to appeal the sanctions handed down by the Committee on Infractions (COI) last week in the textbook investigation. Unfortunately, despite that basic knowledge, we really know next to nothing about our impending appeal. We do not know exactly what will be appealed, and we do not know exactly what rationale the UA team will use to argue that the COI's ruling constituted an abuse of discretion. Let's see if we can scratch the surface a bit and find out anything else.

To begin with, let's lay out the original penalties as imposed by the COI. They were as follows:

  • Public reprimand and censure
  • Three years probation
  • Order to vacate all wins from 2005-2007 involving an ineligible player
  • A fine of $43,900, payable to the NCAA

From the outset, you can rest assured that we will not appeal the public reprimand, nor will we appeal the fine. $40,000 may be quite a bit of money to ordinary people, but it's a drop in the bucket with regard to the football program, and surely will not be a point of contention. The two possible targets for appeal will thus be the imposition of three years probation and the order to vacate wins.

The length of the probation is the one that many have targeted in on from the outset, and in a sense that would seem to be the most obvious target for appeal. On the other hand, it's not quite so simple. The imposition of three years probation seems to be harsh, but in many ways it is a non-penalty. The real troubling penalty moving forward is not the probation, or even the length of the probation. The troubling aspect, instead, is that UA is now subject to the five-year repeat offender window (until June 11th of 2014), and unfortunately that is something that cannot be won back upon appeal. As a result, the length of probation becomes effectively meaningless... even if on appeal we get all three years of probation removed, we will nevertheless be subject to the five-year repeat offender window because we were involved in a major infractions case, which practically means we will get hammered if we screw up again. Again, the probation just doesn't really matter, so even if you "win" the appeal on that front, you have effectively won nothing. Despite the probation period being the most obvious target for appeal at the initial glance, I have a hard time believing that we appeal this aspect of the sanctions. 

As a result, that leaves only the vacated wins for appeal, and perhaps that should not be too surprising. Sure the whole notion of vacated wins is really a farce, but nevertheless it came as the surprise of the NCAA's announcement, and in all fairness twenty-one games is quite a bit to vacate. Keep in mind that this is all speculation on my part, but nevertheless I feel that the vacated wins will constitute the primary, and perhaps sole, thrust of the appeal.

So if you are UA, exactly what arguments do you go in with? Again, it's all speculation on my part, but here goes a few off the top of my head that may be used:

  • The typical spiel that from 2005-2007, we had over 120 football players on scholarship (not counting walk-ons) and by forcing UA to vacate all wins from that period, you are penalizing well over 110 football players who did the right thing and otherwise never did anything wrong.
  • The Cecil Hurt argument regarding the 2007 wins... the five players involved were suspended a set time by the NCAA and were allowed to return. Had the scandal been uncovered in August the players would have missed the first four games of the season -- in a stretch that would have probably been easier for the Tide to stomach -- there would be no vacated wins, and they would have presumably received the same punishment had the scandal been discovered earlier. Thus, why force the program to vacate the entire season when if the scandal had been discovered two months earlier there would be no vacated wins?
  • There was a flaw in the textbook distribution system. However, we had the exact same system in place as many other schools, and in many we did nothing wrong in this case. The minute UA found out of something amiss, a major investigation was launched, we turned over every rock possible, suspended the players in question, immediately self-reported to the SEC and the NCAA, and then worked hand-in-hand with both to fix the problem. At no point did any players receive any cash, any academic benefit, or anything of the sort. As a result, this should be considered more of a UA issue than an NCAA issue, and one that UA promptly corrected.
  • Of the seven players in question, it's hard to argue that any more than two provided us any real competitive advantage. Antoine Caldwell and Jeffrey Dukes generally played well, but the other five players were non-factors at best, and at many times liabilities. Schreiber never really played, Rogers was a special teams player, Johnson didn't play until 2007 (and he killed us then), and Coffee was a below-average runner until 2008. The competitive "advantage" that we gained here involved at most two players, and you shouldn't punish 120+ players for the mistakes of two.
  • Twenty-one wins vacated is a lot of wins. Furthermore, in most cases involving that many wins vacated, you generally either have much more serious infractions (see FSU), or you have situations where the player in question was allowed to participate while he was known to be ineligible, or the institution in question should have absolutely known beyond a doubt that he was ineligible (see Langham). However, in cases involving a handful of players participating where the institution did not know they were ineligible, there should not be such a high number of vacated wins. 
  • The Committee on Infractions made a big deal out of how UA could (and / or should) have discovered these infractions earlier. However, many of the things the COI pointed to, had UA done them, would have still made it difficult for UA to uncover the infractions. Much was made of the "spike" in textbook charges, but just looking at the raw numbers there seems to be a great natural variance in the numbers (i.e. white noise), and nothing really jumps off the page at you. The 30-percent "spike" ignores that the numbers fell after the spike, and they also ignore that the full value of the amount of benefits received by the textbook offenders do not anywhere near explain all of the spike. Moreover, the university did not require the presentation of ID's to receive the books, presumably the players in question could have still attained all of the books even with photo ID. Furthermore, there was no limit on the number of times athletes could purchase books, but even if there was they could have still just purchased all of them at once. Moreover, the NCAA also made light of the fact that there was no monetary cap put on the total dollar amount of books that an athlete could purchase, but such limits could simply cause other administrative headaches with players taking many classes in one semester (which can be common), and at any rate the COI explicitly mentions in its ruling that the NCAA itself does not place a dollar limit on the amount of textbooks that can be purchased.

These are just a few arguments that UA could present when we go up for appeal. I'm sure they will use some, perhaps not others, and they will probably come up with a few more. At any rate, at this point we're still pretty much in the dark on the appeal. We still do not know what precisely we will appeal, nor do we know what rationale we will use to attack the penalties. However, I think if you parse the tea leaves well enough, you can somewhat safely say that we will probably only appeal the vacated wins, and you can come up with at least a few of the arguments that we are likely to present on appeal.