Expert: MSU probe could take NCAA into ‘new territory’

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis on Wednesday indicated he and his department would “cooperate fully” with an NCAA investigation, but where the investigation heads is hard to determine.

The university received a letter of inquiry on Tuesday from the NCAA, which said it intended to begin an investigation into the athletic department’s handling of former doctor Larry Nassar, who was sentenced on Wednesday to 40-175 years for sexually assaulting more than 100 young women, including some Michigan State student-athletes.

What direction the NCAA heads with its investigation is unclear, though, says one expert.

“The only angle that the NCAA would have under its current bylaws would be the health and safety provisions in the constitution, the NCAA constitution and bylaws,” said Michael Buckner, a Florida attorney who has performed internal investigations for the NCAA. “Normally, when the NCAA investigates or cites those types of bylaws or constitutional provisions, it’s normally tied to another NCAA rules violation.

More: Wojo: Simon is out, and MSU's woes just starting

“I’m not familiar with the NCAA just citing those health and safety type provisions as violations in and of themselves. So, if they go down that route it would be entirely new territory.”

In the letter sent from the NCAA to Michigan State, it did not cite any specific rules violations, only referencing Article 2.2 of the NCAA Constitution that established the principle of protecting student-athlete well-being, including health and safety, and Bylaw that specifically identifies well-being as an imperative for Division 1 members.

The move by the NCAA has brought up comparisons to Penn State, where former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted in 2012 on 45 counts of sexually abusing young boys. It also resulted in the resignation of university president Graham Spanier and the termination of athletic director Tim Curley and head football coach Joe Paterno.

On July 23, 2012, the NCAA imposed a $60 million fine, four-year postseason ban, scholarship reductions from 85 to 65, and vacated all victories from 1998 to 2011 for the Penn State football program. However, debate continued over the NCAA’s penalties and in 2014, the NCAA rescinded the postseason ban, restored scholarships, and re-credited Penn State and Paterno with their victories from 1998 to 2011.

Buckner believes the NCAA could end up headed down the same path with the Michigan State investigation.

“The (NCAA) membership has always had an opportunity to pass legislation that would give the NCAA enforcement staff or other portions of the NCAA authority to investigate, to process cases and mete out punishment that might fit the possible misconduct that went on at Penn State and now at Michigan State,” Buckner said. “But the membership has not done that yet and so to me again it seems like another situation — again, not condoning the atrocious behavior, of course — but it seems like the NCAA is now again trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.”

Buckner did say there was one difference from the Penn State case in the fact that the NCAA is following standard procedure this time by sending the letter of inquiry. In the Penn State case, president Mark Emmert pushed for much of the punishment while the letter of inquiry moves the MSU case to the enforcement division and the committee on infractions.

Early Wednesday, Hollis released a statement saying Michigan State was prepared to cooperate with the NCAA.

“Since my first day on the job as athletic director, my focus has always been on the student-athlete,” Hollis said in the statement. “They are at the core of our athletic department mission statement. Our first priority has always been and will always be their health and safety. In regards to the letter we received from the NCAA last night, the athletic compliance and university general counsel offices are preparing a comprehensive response. Michigan State University will cooperate with any investigation.”