FOR NEARLY four years case number 189693 has trudged on without much notice. The NCAA's investigation into the Ole Miss athletic department includes allegations against the football program of academic fraud, illicit booster loans and payments, and significant extra benefits. But by shielding NCAA documents from public record and consistently downplaying the severity of the charges, the university minimized notoriety about the case.
It remained that way until April 28, the day that three Mississippi players—defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, receiver Laquon Treadwell and left tackle Laremy Tunsil—were projected to go in the first round of the NFL draft. Ten minutes before the first pick a video of Tunsil smoking marijuana out of a gas-mask bong leaked on his Twitter account and went viral. Tunsil, the top tackle prospect and once a candidate for the No. 1 pick, lost millions as he slid to the Dolphins at No. 13. Hours later an alleged screenshot appeared on Tunsil's Instagram account showing a conversation in which he asked a Rebels associate AD for $305 to pay his family's electric and water bills. At a press conference that night, Tunsil admitted it was him in the video, and when asked if he had taken money from an Ole Miss coach, he said, "I'd have to say, yeah."
Suddenly case number 189693 was of great interest across the country—and not just for the allegations of 28 violations, 15 of which are related to women's basketball and track and field, and 13 to football. Far more important, the investigation, which will likely be concluded in 2017, is the first of a major football program that falls primarily under a new penalty structure instituted in '13.
Under the old guidelines violations were lumped into two categories, "major" or "secondary," which left room for interpretation and inconsistency. The new guidelines aim for more precision, ranging from Level I to Level IV (with I being the most severe). They also hold head coaches more accountable and try to more clearly define punishments, though there are degrees of severity within each level.
For example, an "aggravated" Level I violation could produce a four-year ban on postseason competition and a 50% scholarship reduction, while a "mitigated" Level I might get only a one-year ban and a 12.5% reduction. Ole Miss football is accused of four Level I violations under coach Hugh Freeze, and there is also a significant Level II "failure to monitor" charge—which the university is disputing.
Among coaches and administrators a theory has emerged: If Ole Miss doesn't get hit hard after fixing three ACT tests, booster malfeasance and a player's nationally televised admission of taking money, the SEC West—and many other conferences—will turn into the Wild Wild West. Even at a time when multibillion-dollar TV contracts and escalating coaching salaries have made the public more sympathetic to the idea of player compensation and the unfairness of pursuing petty infractions, the breadth of wrongdoing in Oxford cries out for a definitive response.
"Schools continue to engage in really egregious behavior," says Jo Potuto, a former chair of the Committee on Infractions. "Is the penalty high enough that there's a calculus shift? I'm not sure we're at the point where we're hitting schools with sufficiently serious penalties."
So what will happen to Ole Miss? Freeze could be suspended, even though he hasn't been directly connected to any Level I or Level II wrongdoing. "[Does the NCAA] stick to their guns like they said a few years ago and hold the head coach accountable?" asked a veteran SEC head coach. "They need to make a damn statement, sooner or later."
Mississippi has already self-imposed penalties, taking away 11 football scholarships; limiting the recruiting responsibilities of assistant coaches Chris Kiffin and Maurice Harris; disassociating four boosters; paying a fine of $159,325; and placing itself on three years' probation.
Tyrone Thomas, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who regularly handles NCAA cases, considers those "starting points" for the penalty. Ole Miss has not fired any coaches, and the feeling around the SEC and college football is that the NCAA must go further. "Schools are probably not [going as far as] they would have under the old system," says Michael Buckner, a Sunrise, Fla., lawyer who also works NCAA cases. "Why penalize yourself when the hearing panel may not impose them?"
All three outside lawyers SI spoke to agreed that Ole Miss has been thorough in helping the NCAA's investigators, but that doesn't mean the organization will be lenient. "This is a very serious case," says Buckner. "The number of Level I violations involved [16 overall, eight in football] coupled with the number of coaches and boosters involved—those are all very serious violations that threaten the integrity of the sport."
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