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NCAA Ignores its own Precedent, Denies Appeal

I have argued for some time now that the issues that many fans take with the NCAA's handling of infractions cases is not an issue of a hatred for Alabama (or any other school), but of simple incompetence. Today's ruling by the NCAA's Committee on Appeals simply reinforces that fact.

In an 8-page ruling today, the CoA upheld the Committee on Infractions decision to vacate 21 football wins and a number of records from Track and Field. In so doing, they essentially ignored every point raised in Alabama's appeal (including the huge diversion from previous textbook case and vacation of wins precedent) and chalked it up to "Well, you guys were repeat offenders, so...".

The report, leaving aside for now that they ignored virtually all of Alabama's points, had several glaring factual errors or misrepresentations. The first misrepresentation is how the value of the benefit was calculated, to wit: 

the institution’s textbook distribution system allowed approximately 200 student-athletes to obtain impermissible textbooks and supplies, with a total retail value of approximately $40,000

The "retail value" of the books is a very misleading way to approach the infraction because the students were not permitted to keep the books. They were borrowed for a semester and then returned. Assigning the full retail value of the books to the use of the book for a few months is ridiculous, especially when you know that the Alabama bookstore resold the returned books for almost full price.

The second issue occurred on page two of the document . The Committee wrote: 

[T]he scope was large in that more than 200 student-athletes were involved, 22 of whom were aware that they were receiving impermissible benefits through their actions.

In fact, no evidence was ever presented that any of the students knew that they were violating NCAA rules. They knew that they were gaming the University's system, but not that that gaming was impermissible to the NCAA. 

The CoI's decision departed sharply from their penalties in any other case involving textbook improprieties or vacated wins. Their justification, which was upheld by the CoA, was that Alabama was a repeat offender. This directly contradicts the available punishment allowed by the NCAA Bylaws: Repeat-Violator Penalties. In addition to the penalties identified for a major violation, the minimum penalty for a repeat violator, subject to exceptions authorized by the Committee on Infractions on the basis of specifically stated reasons, may include any or all of the following: (Revised: 1/11/94)

Note the language: "any or all of the following". The list that follows includes post-season bans, scholarship reductions, and administrative measures like the school losing its NCAA vote. "Vacation of wins" is not one of the enhancements listed. While the bylaws do not explicitly state that no other enhancements may be used, the conspicuous absence of the common language "may include, but is not limited to" suggests, as Alabama raised in its appeal, that the vacation of wins is an inappropriate enhancement.

At the end of the day, what the Committee on Appeals writes is law and is going to be the law for future cases going forward (assuming they decide to follow the precedent). In my view, this case represents a significant broadening of the allowable enhancements for "repeat violator" status and a significant narrowing of the "abuse of discretion" requirement in the standard of review.

While it was already becoming more difficult to appeal a CoI decision, this case raises the bar for what an institution will need to show to reach the "abuse of discretion" level. If the NCAA comes down hard on USC, it will be much harder for those penalties to be appealed now that errors like those made in the CoI's decision no longer qualifie as "abuses of discretion."

All told, this appeal played out very similarly to the 2002 appeal case where it appeared that the NCAA didn't even read Alabama's appeal, but if we're going to be honest, "vacation of wins" is a blip on the radar. Like it or not, this chapter is closed and 21 historical wins are now considered losses.

It sucks, but more important things are in store: namely, our hunt for our 14th national championship.