Through the Trifocals: Illinois & the NCAA

The University of Illinois has had a frustrating long-term relationship with the NCAA that may be continuing unabated. Illinisports discusses this relationship, especially how it has affected the Deon Thomas case and the Chief Illiniwek controversy, in this article. This is part V of XIV parts.

Enforcement of NCAA rules was extremely important to Walter Byers because he gained maximum power this way. Much like J. Edgar Hoover made a name for himself with the FBI by capturing John Dillinger, Byers personally investigated the 1952 University of Kentucky point-shaving scandal. He successfully banned Kentucky from basketball for one year, showing the country the NCAA meant business. There was a new sheriff in town.

Byers created rules to counter every known cheating method demonstrated by his member schools, but then his enforcement staff could interpret them any way they saw fit to gain convictions. He demanded compliance and promised massive reprisals for those who broke the rules. He ruled through intimidation.

California Representative John Moss was quoted in 1976 as saying, "This is a private organization responsible to no one outside itself, with powers normally reserved to governments." And Tom McMillen, former Maryland basketball star and U. S. Representative for Maryland said in late 1990, "The NCAA needs to stop being a schoolyard bully with petty grievances against schools." Byers countered with the claim this was election-year politics, but many who had encountered the NCAA's wrath agreed with McMillen.

Of course, the NCAA has no true legal power to aid its investigations of wrongdoing. Without the power to subpoena witnesses, the NCAA cannot possibly expect to determine the real truth of any situation. Accused parties can merely lie or refuse to cooperate. But that never stopped Walter Byers from meting out severe punishments, deserved or not.

The NCAA began using a number of indirect methods to circumvent this problem, with varying degrees of success. For instance, the University of Illinois self-reported a "Slush Fund" in late 1966 that included paying certain football and basketball players. It gave the NCAA ledgers showing who received what moneys. This is among the best evidence for illegality the NCAA has ever had in its possession.

But it wanted more. So it arranged interviews with the athletes mentioned in the ledgers. At these meetings, the athletes were told not to bring representation, legal or otherwise, because there was no desire by the NCAA to punish them. This is a common ploy because a person is always more vulnerable to maximum penalties if he has no one with legal background to protect his rights from self-incrimination and to see through any manipulations or leading questions.

All but one athlete attended the meetings alone, and they spoke freely, believing their careers were safe by doing so. Their non-legal testimony helped end the coaching careers of football coach Pete Elliott and basketball coaches Harry Combes and Howie Braun and forced the severing of relations of several alumni and "friends of the program" from the University of Illinois.

Unfortunately, the NCAA went back on its word and punished the athletes also. With the exception of the one athlete whose testimony was tempered by council, all the other incriminated athletes lost all future eligibility at Illinois. This was the first time Illinois people knew about the NCAA's deceitful tactics, but it wouldn't be the last.

The NCAA hired investigators, many with law degrees from prestigous universites, to determine guilt in infractions cases. However, despite the extreme importance of enforcement to the power of the NCAA, it set aside only 2% of its budget on enforcement. There was numerous turnover among staff because they could rarely work more than two years for so small a salary. They had their expenses paid and were well treated, but the low salary weeded out those who were not totally committed to the NCAA's enforcement program. What was left were driven individuals with Byers-like zeal and commitment.

This turnover was permitted to continue because the resulting delays in ongoing investigations aided the NCAA's cause. These delays produced negative repercussions for the investigated school as they had to wait interminably for the final penalties to be announced. The Illinois football investigation in the mid 1980's took three years to finalize, hurting recruiting immensely. As Don Yaeger said, "Justice delayed is justice denied." Lengthy investigations became unconvicted punishments that created more fear among NCAA member schools.

The procedures investigators employed were suspect at best, at least if you compare them to what is permissible in a court of law. But they were infrequently required to be legal. For example, no meeting between an NCAA investigator and witness could be taped or otherwise recorded. Investigators took brief notes and later wrote lengthier prose based on their memories and interpretations of what was said. Witnesses had no way of knowing what was remembered and what wasn't, and they couldn't guarantee the investigator would understand or report their own perspective on the details of the case.

The NCAA claimed there were three reasons they objected to taping the meetings. One, it might be intimidating to those being interviewed. Two, it would be a secretarial nightmare and cost more even though some offered to pay for transcriptions. Three, there might be a loss of confidentiality.

Those who were interrogated in these meetings with no access to precise recording of events found themselves extremely intimidated, so tape recordings would only scare the guilty. The NCAA makes plenty of money and enjoys spending it on the pursuit of its own happiness, so the money issue is minimal at best. And whatever confidentiality lost would be countered by the potential for fairness and accuracy for those being interrogated.

Despite the resistance to tape recording meetings, it must be understood the NCAA routinely tape recorded every phone call into and out of its offices in complete secrecy. Walter Byers said this practice ended in 1972, but S. David Berst, long-time chief investigator for the NCAA, admitted it had continued until at least 1976.

By the mid-1980's, investigators were sent to a spy school where Israeli, U. S. Army and FBI investigators taught an intensive three-day program on the "art of questioning." This included learning methods of repeating questions in different ways under different degrees of emotionality to elicit the response desired. One must wonder if this method produces more truthful responses or those designed to end the ordeal quicker.

Investigators were also permitted to take an athlete out for an expensive dinner and unlimited alcoholic beverages in an effort to get incriminating information. They weren't even required to state they represented the NCAA unless asked. Again, they wanted to win their cases and punish, so fairness was unimportant. After all, the NCAA set aside vast amounts of money for long-term defense of any lawsuits brought against them. And they paid handsomely for lobbyists to obtain political favors.

Thus, if there was any predetermined bias or excessive zeal by the investigators to find someone guilty regardless of the evidence, these procedures helped insure getting their way. After all, any person under formal interrogation could get only a brief review of the post-interview documents and minimal if any chance to correct errors or add important points not mentioned. They were not given a copy of the final draft, so they didn't know exactly what was being used against them. They were asked to sign this final draft without reading it. If they didn't sign, it was handed over to the NCAA Infractions Committee anyway. They were then accused of being "uncooperative", another mark against them.

It was also not uncommon for the NCAA to try cases in public by creative use of the media. Schools under investigation were forced to remain silent about their own analysis or position so as to not prejudice their cases against the NCAA. But the same was not true in reverse. The NCAA did try to sway public opinion by feeding information to loyal reporters and making public pronouncements of their continuing investigations. They took advantage of a "media frenzy" to make unfounded accusations and thus punish and embarrass schools in the public eye.

Regardless of the time it took for the NCAA to complete its investigation, the accused schools were given a tight deadline to respond. Often, this was a mere two weeks before the hearing. Berst admitted this extreme discrepancy was done intentionally to prevent a school from beating the NCAA's case.

With all the circular arguments and methodology being employed against them, investigated schools could sense a no-win scenario. And since investigators and Infractions Committee members were wined and dined together lavishly and had numerous opportunities to share notes and strengthen friendships prior to any formal meeting to decide schools' ultimate fates, the fears of those schools were well founded.

Since Infractions Committee members were also hand-picked by Walter Byers, there was little or no chance of changing the outcome away from what the NCAA wanted. The Infractions Committee members worked their way up the ranks and proved their loyalty before selection. Their rewards for faithful service included luxury hotels, large per diems, all expenses paid to and from meetings (they were given $100 for the inconvenience of riding coach rather than First Class on any airplane trip).

Everything was stacked against the accused. This is equivalent to the judge, jury and prosecutor all meeting together prior to trial. It isn't legal in a court of law, but it was normal procedure in infractions investigations. As of 1990, 90% of schools were found guilty once they were given a "preliminary letter of inquiry", and 100% were guilty if they received an "Official Letter of Inquiry" regardless of the quality of their defense.

David Berst called appeals a waste of time, and they certainly were. One member of the Infractions Committee was overheard in a restaurant once to say he didn't read one appeal because it was too long. This is complete heresay and would never hold up in a court of law, but the NCAA would gladly take this source of information as fact if it would serve their purpose.

Attorney Erwin Ward, who represented Mississippi State in an infraction hearing told Don Yaeger, "Most institutions bow down without a whimper. Those that stand up against the NCAA do so with trembling and continuing fears of retaliatory retribution--retribution that can be dispensed without warning by a powerful arm of arbitrary force."

An absense of public outcry against NCAA tactics may not mean everything is going well. How many would dare criticize the NCAA publicly without fear of reprisal? Even private criticism might result in tattle-tales spreading the word back to the all-powerful NCAA.

Parts VI through XIV will appear on in the upcoming days.

Part I of this series is available here.
Part II of this series is available here.
Part III of this series is available here.
Part IV for this series is available here.

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