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Original Issue

It was a trial but worth it

The congressional investigation of the NCAA's enforcement practices, though flawed, may lead to needed changes

After 12 months, 50 witnesses and 70 hours of testimony, the hearings of the House Subcommitte on Oversight and Investigations on the enforcement practices (and malpractices) of the NCAA ground to a conclusion last week, having failed to prove 1) that Executive Director Walter Byers is a law unto himself, exercising an insidious will over the justice branch of the NCAA, and 2) that Byers' enforcement staff is a bunch of guys with dirty fingernails who run around subverting due process, a staff that pursues a Byers "hit list" of weak and vulnerable schools and conducts "vendettas" against those who do not knuckle under, but always steers clear of the "sacred cows" who provide monetary and influential milk to the NCAA.

Such a prospect had been augured last February when the hearings began amid threats and rancor. It had been, in fact, the thrust of a keynote address by the subcommittee's initial "star witness," Brent Clark (SI, Feb. 27), a defector from the NCAA investigative force who wound up on the staff of the subcommittee. But Clark is long gone now, discredited first in print, and then by an investigative team from the staff itself. And although the hearings never really lost the bitter tone of those early prejudices (in fact, were permanently flawed by them), it would be wrong to conclude that the net result was a waste of both time and taxpayers' money.

To the contrary. The hearings performed a service that may well have a positive influence on the complex, ever-evolving NCAA judicial code, even though the process by which it came about may be decried as no more than the "kangaroo court" that witnesses claimed the NCAA itself has been running all these years.

In a sense, the hearings had a salutary effect despite the prejudices of chairman John Moss (D., Calif.), who was never once swayed from his antagonism toward Byers and the "repugnant" NCAA enforcement process, even as it became evident that he did not always understand it, or wish to. On the last day of the hearings, he bragged that he cared less about organized sport than anybody on The Hill. By then, however, he had gotten in his long-awaited shots at Byers, who last October had had the temerity to defy Moss' requests for confidential NCAA files.

As Byers testified last week, Moss afforded him the kind of respect one might expect him to give a labor goon. "You mean nothing to this committee," Moss stormed at one point. It seemed to bother him a great deal that Byers never rose to the baiting, and parried every thrust from the subcommittee, demonstrating once more why he is the NCAA's most indispensable (if sometimes most inscrutable) employee.

The hearings were marred by this tawdry display of congressional courtesy, as they were marred by Moss' righthand voice, Rep. James Santini (D., Nev.), who had promoted them out of sympathy for Nevada, Las Vegas' basketball coach, Jerry Tarkanian. Tarkanian had been caught cheating in grand style by the NCAA in 1977. Santini is an avid UNLV basketball fan and sits behind the bench. And to the end, he was still retrying the UNLV case, determined to get his pound of flesh. On the very last afternoon, in fact, he once more produced the photostat of a picture that the subcommittee discovered in NCAA files, showing Santini cheering from the UNLV press row. This he depicted as an example of NCAA "paranoia" (and not, of course, his own). He demanded to know who had it made and at what cost.

This kind of nonsense was bad enough, but it was compounded by the failure of the subcommittee staff to do its homework, as evidenced by the prominent position (leadoff man) it accorded the unfortunate Clark. The staff never bothered to send a fact-finding team to NCAA headquarters until Clark himself had to be investigated, and the extent of its plumbing the true source of NCAA enforcement procedure—the Committee on Infractions—consisted of two men "having a beer" with Professor Charles Wright of Texas and Dr. Bill Matthews of Kentucky, both infractions committee members, at the NCAA convention last January. That was a gross failing, because the Committee on Infractions is the architect of the entire judicial system, the ultimate authority over the investigative staff and the judge and jury of those caught violating NCAA rules.

Ironically, in its final (and only) defense, with its most prestigious voices being heard, it was the NCAA's own inability to clarify thorny issues and questionable procedures that make the subcommittee's cries for reform valid—and the report it will render before the next NCAA convention in January an important document.

For, again ironically, it was not the beleaguered Byers who withered under exposure, nor his principal enforcement officers, Bill Hunt and David Berst; it was the five members of the Committee on Infractions and NCAA President Neils Thompson. They were simply unable to dispel the doubts and explain what all the whys and wherefores are there for.

Thompson made a gentlemanly effort to conciliate with his testimony, but came off giving the impression that if Moss (who loved the testimony) had asked him to turn the NCAA into the Cheyenne Social Club he would "gladly look into it." The brains of the outfit, the infractions committee, which has worked so hard to forge the "cooperative system of justice" that has kept the NCAA membership from falling into a legal morass, failed to clear the muddied waters. "An unimpressive performance," said Professor Wright. "They'd made up their minds beforehand, and we didn't do a very good job explaining ours."

The implications are clear: if the men who wrote the book and administer its tenets cannot adequately defend the fairness of the system to a group of U.S. congressmen, how can they expect a sophomore linebacker or a 30-year-old coach trying to survive in the pressure cooker of big-time college athletics to embrace it?

If they cannot adequately explain, as they did not, why one man's word against a single accuser still results in a penalty (as apparently happened with Michigan State Assistant Coach Charles Butler when charged by a student-athlete), then the system needs revision, if only to assuage the rest of the membership.

If they cannot adequately explain, as they did not, why a clothing discount amounting to a paltry $12.50 resulted in a football player's being ruled ineligible and the school ultimately placed on probation (as was the case with Defensive Tackle Larry Gillard and Mississippi State University), while Ohio State got only a "reprimand" for violations that included illegal transportation payments, then the system needs revision.

If the "cozy relationship" between the infractions committee and the enforcement staff cannot be delineated without raising doubts of collusion, as it was not, and no good reason can be given for not separating the committee from the staff or adding a third group as the final judge of cases, then the system needs revision.

If it cannot be explained why "confidentiality" of findings and sentences are important to a school that has been investigated, when such secrecy raises grave doubts of equity, of just treatment and the specter of "selective enforcement," then confidentiality is a poor substitute for policy, and the system needs revision.

However, the partisan outcry of such ax-grinders as Santini clouds the fact that the infractions committee is almost always dealing with people trying to beat the system, not hopeless pawns of it. Nevada, Las Vegas was "found" on 36 violations of NCAA rules, Michigan State on 34, Mississippi State on 17. The allegation of the illegal gift of a "Jolly Green Giant tote bag" in an investigation at Minnesota that drew continual sarcasm from Santini clouded over the fact that in that particular case the player had also been given illegal meals, lodging, transportation, etc.

The fact is that NCAA enforcement is not "us" and "them," but universities trying to police and judge themselves. It cannot operate otherwise—the alternative being the adversary system: cops and robbers, subpoenaed witnesses, a 1,000-man (instead of a 10-man) police force, court trials, endless litigation.

But legitimate doubts certainly have been raised that all is not right with the system. Forty-six suggestions, many dealing with better cooperation between the NCAA and schools under investigation, were made by witnesses during the eight-month hearings. Some have been implemented, others have been rejected, some are under consideration. Indeed, the hearings may have done just enough to result in the necessary compromises that lead to beneficial change. If that is so, Moss was right in at least one judgment: "Our efforts will have been worth it."


NCAA Executive Director Byers (left) and enforcement officer Hunt kept cool under fire.