Experts: Cases like Ohio State’s mostly outside of NCAA authority

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer will begin the season serving a three-game suspension related to an investigation into the behavior of former assistant coach Zach Smith.

The NCAA will play little role in the Urban Meyer episode at Ohio State, beyond considering a potential recruiting violation by former assistant coach Zach Smith, national experts on compliance issues said.

The association is ill-equipped to investigate criminal and civil complaints, which are outside of the specific language of NCAA rules, the experts said.

Any penalties, they said, would be comparatively mild, including possible limitations on recruiting, which a recruitment factory like Ohio State can tolerate without a significant impact on the gridiron, they said.

The circumstances leave the NCAA powerless against a wave of bad behavior at some institutions, they said, including alleged domestic violence, the widespread sexual abuse of athletes at the hands of school medical personnel, using prostitutes to recruit players and purportedly creating a training environment so dangerous it may have led to the death of a player.

Intercollegiate athletics are reliant on the ability and willingness of the schools and law enforcement to police athletic departments.

Often, that means reining in coaches that generate huge sums of money for the schools and provide valuable marketing to students and student-athletes attracting by winning traditions and excitement on campus.

“The root of this is that the NCAA is not what it purports to be,” said Marc Edelman, a professor of law at Baruch College in New York, and a sports lawyer.

“The NCAA likes to proclaim that they’re this great body that oversees and keeps college sports safe.

“But the reality is that the NCAA is a bottom-up trade association composed of its membership,” said Edelman, who is a faculty representative for athletics at Baruch. “And, just about every member of the NCAA at the end of the day has the same interest in mind, with that being to maximize revenues.”

The 23-page report summarizing the work of an independent group tasked with investigating Meyer and the handling of allegations against Smith was released Aug. 22. The investigation revealed considerable wrongdoing by Smith, some of it, with Meyer’s knowledge. Meyer was given a three-game suspension to start the season.

But only a recruiting trip in which Smith entertained a high school coach at a strip club is likely to be reviewed by the NCAA.

In fact, the experts say, it is likely Ohio State has either already self-reported the possible violation, or will do so, presently.

“From the NCAA compliance standpoint, that seems to be the only thing that has come out of his report,” said William Brooks, a lawyer in Birmingham, Ala., who has represented institutions in compliance issues.

“That information was concrete enough to indicate it was a violation,” Brooks said.

More: Ohio State trustee resigns, calls Meyer’s penalty too light

“But, otherwise, I haven’t seen anything that would indicate a violation of specific NCAA legislation, which is what’s important in evaluating it from a compliance standpoint.”

NCAA legislation is what the association administers and regulates, not the legislation of state and federal governments that becomes criminal and civil law.

When it attempted to expand its role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, a court blocked the initiative.

“The NCAA proved that they would look at anything when they took the misguided attempt with Penn State,” said B. David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University, and co-editor of Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics. “And, if you look, they haven’t gone in on Michigan State or some other pretty serious things.

“They learned from Penn State that they can’t really police everything.”

The NCAA this week cleared the Michigan State athletic department of any wrongdoing in the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal. It also cleared basketball coach Tom Izzo and football coach Mark Dantonio, regarding an ESPN report that questioned how sexual assault cases had been handled by Dantonio and his program as well as Izzo and the men’s basketball program.

The letter stated the NCAA cleared MSU in that matter, saying it “has not substantiated violations of NCAA legislation.”

The powerlessness leaves individual institutions to enforce standards, Ridpath and others said.

And, too often, universities and colleges side with popular, successful coaches who drive dollars into university coffers.

“As far as Urban Meyer goes, I think we have to look more broadly at what big-time college sports has become,” Edelman said.

“There has been such a focus on winning and maximizing revenue by a number of schools, including Ohio State, that basic principles of ethics and the well-being of college athletes have long been thrown away."

Former Ohio State assistant football coach Zach Smith

While Meyer can easily be blamed for hiring an assistant he knew might be guilty of bad acts, and then failed to properly guide and discipline him, Edelman said Louisville and Colorado have faced accusations of using sex to recruit players, and Maryland faces scrutiny in the death of a football player.

“There has been a longstanding disregard for common decency and norms by many athletic programs that are simply attempting to maximize their revenues, to the detriment of the athletes,” Edelman said.

“And while Ohio State University’s decision to turn a blind eye to someone who is engaged in (alleged) domestic violence serving as a coach on the football team is certainly reprehensible, if we want to be honest, it does not lie substantially outside of the scope of the bad acts and negligence that we can see at many of the universities.

“This is widespread,” he said. “Urban Meyer is just one example.”

Edelman expressed reticence to focus on the recruiting violation, asserting it is merely a distraction.

“It’s kind of how the NCAA likes things,” he said.

“The NCAA would like us to focus on the micro because if you go back up to the macro level, all of a sudden the NCAA ceases to look like this institution that is enforcing wrongdoing, but really tends to come off as the bad actor, itself.”

Part of the larger picture is emerging right at Ohio State.

Three lawsuits accuse Dr. Richard Strauss, who died in 2005 and worked for 20 years for the athletic department, of sexually abusing former athletes and patients at the student health service.

“I think if we’re going to talk about Urban Meyer, in all honesty, the conversation has to begin with Richard Strauss, even though the two have probably never met each other,” Edelman said.

Amid the circumstances of burgeoning scandal and the powerlessness of the NCAA, universities and colleges are likely to make more use of personal conduct language in personnel contracts, Ridpath said.

“I think you’re going to see institutions take a much, much harder look at personal conduct issues for their coaches, especially when they pay them so much,” he said.

Part of the problem with the NCAA acting as an enforcer of civil and criminal law, Ridpath said, is that it is not always competent in conducting its more limited role of preserving competitiveness.

“While some people might think it’s good for the NCAA to get involved, they can’t even investigate what they’re responsible for, effectively,” he said.

“When you look at North Carolina, that was such a disaster.

“You’re punishing kids for selling shoes, which is their property, and then you can’t punish a school for longstanding, 20 years of academic fraud, and a complete sham against the concept of college athletics.

“The NCAA, in my view, needs to fix that part of their house, and stay out of the things that are criminal and civil because they’ll only mess it up.”