On Thursday, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions handed down harsh penalties to three programs at the University of Missouri after it found that a former tutor had done coursework for athletes.
The former tutor said she felt pressure to ensure that the 12 student-athletes she completed work for would pass classes, but an investigation found that she was never directed to complete any work for student-athletes. For most of the implicated athletes, the tutor completed online coursework, including assignments, quizzes and exams.
For those infractions, the Committee on Infractions laid out a number of penalties, including:
- Three years of probation
- A 10-year show-cause penalty for the tutor
- A 2018-19 postseason ban for both the baseball and softball teams
- A 2019-20 postseason ban for the football team
- A vacation of records in which the ineligible athletes competed
- Scholarship reductions
- Recruiting restrictions
- Disassociation of the tutor
- A fine of $5,000 plus 1 percent of each team’s budget.
In addition, any team members with only one year of eligibility left may transfer without restrictions.
The harshness of the penalties caught many at Missouri by surprise. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that in the school’s discussions with the NCAA, postseason bans were never discussed. When it learned of the infractions, the school self-imposed multi-game suspensions on particular players, hoping it would mitigate any punishment the NCAA would hand down. It didn’t work.
Despite evidence supporting that the tutor acted alone, outside the direction of the athletic department, and despite the university's willingness to cooperate with the COI's investigation, David Roberts, the commitee’s chief hearing officer, said that the punishment fit the crime.
"I would not say they were penalized improperly or extraordinarily," Roberts said. "The guidelines the association put in place operated as intended by the association. If they had chosen a different route, I couldn't predict what the outcome would be."
Many in the national media were quick to point out the discrepancy between the punishment Missouri was dealt compared to what the University of North Carolina received for that school’s academic scandal.
In its report, the Committee on Infractions directly addresses the difference between Mizzou and UNC's cases, which is, essentially, Mizzou admitted to there being fraud and UNC did not. pic.twitter.com/QZfxIslGC5— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) January 31, 2019
In its report, the COI drew a distinction between Missouri and North Carolina, saying:
“The conduct at issue in this case is also distinguishable from the COI’s decision in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2017). Among other differences, UNC stood by the courses and the grades it awarded student-athletes. In support of that position, UNC asserted courses were created and graded by an office secretary, student-athletes completed their own work. Here, by contrast, Missouri acknowledged that the tutor completed student-athletes’ work and, in most instances, this conduct violated its honor code.”
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples summed it up thusly: "This is a massive cop-out that also happens to be 100% accurate … But this logic does nothing to satisfy rational, logical individuals who see this relative flea getting swatted with a sledgehammer while the elephant wanders away unscathed. It also does nothing to contradict the public image of the NCAA as a capricious steward that seems fundamentally incapable of applying its brand of justice fairly.”
Asked if the penalties might encourage schools to be dishonest or to not cooperate with investigations in the future, Roberts admitted that it was possible.
"One could certainly make that argument," he said.
Missouri chancellor Alexander Cartwright and athletic director Jim Sterk have pledged to appeal the NCAA's decision. Sterk's statement read in part, "The Committee on Infractions has abused its discretion in applying penalties in this case, and the University will immediately appeal this decision that has placed unfair penalties on our departments and programs."
Statements From University of Missouri Chancellor Alexander N. Cartwright & Director of Athletics Jim Sterk pic.twitter.com/Jo9ohPdQZi— Mizzou Athletics (@MizzouAthletics) January 31, 2019
Football coach Barry Odom, baseball coach Steve Bieser and softball coach Larissa Anderson each released statements in support of Cartwright and Sterk.
The appeals process could take months to resolve. If an appeal is ongoing during the time of a proposed postseason ban, the banned team will be allowed to compete in postseason activities.