Was the NCAA Too Harsh on Alabama?

On February 1st, the NCAA Infractions Committee released its report on the high-profile, sensational case of alleged major infractions by the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.

The case began officially last February, when Alabama received a Preliminary Letter of Inquiry from the NCAA in the wake of allegations by former Memphis Trezevant assistant football coach Milton Kirk.  Kirk publicly declared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal that the services of lineman Albert Means had been "sold" to Alabama in the fall of 1999.  The University of Alabama was formally charged with 11 major infractions, including offering illegal recruiting inducements, providing illegal benefits to enrolled football players, illegal loans to an assistant football coach, and academic fraud.

Alabama developed and submitted an 800-page response to the charges, and at a hearing before the NCAA Committee on Infractions (COI) in November, Tide representatives passionately pleaded for leniency, using a "defense to mitigate penalties" that accused the NCAA of withholding information developed by their investigators, information that would have allowed Alabama to more effectively deal with the transgressions and the perpetrators.  Alabama self-imposed a series of penalties, including a reduction of 15 initial grants-in-aid, disassociation of boosters for 5-7 years, and reduced recruiting activities by the football coaching staff.  The NCAA COI found Alabama guilty of 8 major violations; and they levied additional penalties, including a two-year bowl ban,  additional scholarship reductions (21 initial counters in all) and a reduction of the overall 85 scholarship limit, down to 80 for the 2002 and 2003 seasons.  The COI asked Alabama to "show cause" as to why three Alabama boosters should not be disassociated for life.  Tom Yeager, the Chair of the Infractions Committee, said afterwards that "Alabama was literally staring down the barrel of a gun," hinting that the committee strongly considered giving the Alabama football program the so-called "death penalty," a punishment not used since the 1985 SMU case.

Tide representatives, including President Andrew Sorenson and Athletics Director Mal Moore, called the NCAA's penalties "unacceptable", and vowed to immediately undertake a vigorous appeal process.  It should be noted that in 1995, Alabama appealed penalties handed down by the NCAA COI, and those penalties were eventually reduced--significantly--by the Appeals Committee.

But this time, did the NCAA go to far?  Was Alabama unjustly "hammered"?  Does the punishment fit the crime; and considering the harsh penalty, was Alabama's cooperation in self-reporting and developing information on the case rewarded?  In fact, will these harsh penalties serve to discourage self-reporting in the future?

These are valid questions; and to answer them completely, one must examine Alabama's recent history of NCAA violations and the NCAA's disposition of them.  It's also helpful to know the bylaws, specifically Bylaw, Repeat-Violator Penalties.  College football fans should remember that the NCAA is a voluntary organization, formed so that member institutions could police themselves.  NCAA Bylaws are adopted, accepted and voted on by all member institutions; they aren't developed in a vacuum, and a school that does not desire to abide by them has numerous options, running the gamut from formally opposing a bylaw, to voluntarily leaving the NCAA altogether. 

The Repeat-Violator Penalties bylaw sets forth a list of minimum penalties for a repeat violator, which may be imposed, subject to exceptions authorized by the COI.  The bylaw states that penalties may include any or all of the following: 

(a)  The prohibition of some or all outside competition in the sport involved in the latest major violation for one or two sports seasons (the so-called "death penalty", which can last up to 2 years); and

(b)  The elimination of all initial grants-in-aid and all recruiting activities in the sport involved in the latest major violation in question for a two-year period; and

(c)  The requirement that all institutional staff members serving in NCAA leadership positions, or as committee members, shall be ineligible to serve for a period of four years; and

(d)  The requirement that the institution relinquish its voting privilege in the Association for a four-year period.

According to the bylaws which Alabama helped develop and which Alabama fully endorses, the Tide football program MAY have been given the death penalty, or they may have lost ALL scholarship starts in football for a two-year period (that's FIFTY scholarship starts, for those who are unaware).  You COULD say that the NCAA showed mercy and restraint, only taking away 21 initial scholarship starts, and allowing football competition to continue.

The COI's public report on the Alabama case, available at www.ncaa.org, makes for some interesting reading.  Anyone who wants to judge the fairness or unfairness of the NCAA's penalties in this case must first read the COI's public report. 

In June 1995, representatives from Alabama appeared in front of the COI in the Gene Jelks/Antonio Langham case.  The NCAA's adjudication, and public release of the penalties in the case, came in August of 1995.  Alabama appealed the NCAA's decision, with the Committee on Appeals releasing the revised report on the case in November 1995.

In reading the public report of the 2002 case, one learns that also in August 1995-just as penalties were being released by the NCAA in the Jelks/Langham case- a "representative of Alabama's athletic interests" approached a high school football player in Stevenson, AL.  The Alabama booster offered $20,000 cash in exchange for the player's signature on an Alabama LOI.  Sometime that fall--while the Alabama appeal with the NCAA was ongoing--the player in North Alabama received $10,000 cash in a plastic grocery bag.  And in January--little more than a month after the NCAA released the revised penalties against Alabama in the Jelks/Langham case--the recruit's father received an additional $10,000 in a brown envelope, following a meeting of two Alabama boosters in Memphis.

The COI's public report details numerous other egregious charges that the NCAA is convinced were perpetrated by "representatives of Alabama's athletic interests."  A prep player in Memphis's signature was bought for $115,000.  Illegal loans were extended to an Alabama assistant football coach, loans which were not repaid, even partially, until the NCAA's noose began to tighten around the Bama football program.  High school recruits were entertained by "strippers" on official recruiting visits; the recruits were provided cash to give to the strippers.  In all, Alabama was found guilty of 8 major violations and 3 additional secondary violations.  Alabama did not deny ANY of these major charges, offering only two defenses: that the offense was beyond the statute of limitations in the North Alabama case, and the "cooperative principle" defense to mitigate penalties in the Memphis case.

Did Alabama get hammered?  Absolutely.  Was the penalty too harsh?  All things considered, no; in fact, it was probably too lenient. 

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