Attitude is everything. As Syracuse University heads into Sweet Sixteen action this Thursday against Indiana amid reports of a wide-ranging investigation of its athletics program, the Orangemen might be wise to remember that, instead of poking the NCAA snake.
Just before this year’s March Madness began, news broke that NCAA investigators were looking at the Athletic Department for a number of violations. As vigorously reported by The Post Standard of Central New York on syracuse.com, much of the not-so-rumored probe centers on the men’s basketball program over the past five years. Further, the inquiry is separate and unrelated to an earlier probe of alleged sexual abuse by former assistant coach Bernie Fine.
According to the Post Standard story that ran on March 20, 2013, NCAA investigators have conducted face-to-face interviews of Syracuse employees or former employees for at least the past school year in a broadly-scoped investigation that includes the handling of former basketball player Fab Melo’s academic eligibility and a 2007 alleged sexual assault case involving three other players. This information was provided to the paper by two named and two unnamed sources, and seems to confirm an earlier report by CBS Sports that the basketball team has been under the microscope for years for major and wide-ranging transgressions that –although also encompassing the football program – primarily involve the men’s basketball team.
The latest NCAA dig – if ongoing as reported – comes hard on the heels of another confirmed inquiry into years-old allegations that Syracuse basketball players were allowed to practice and play in games despite being in violation of the school’s drug policy. The combination has B. David Ridpath, Associate Professor of Sports Administration at Ohio University and a former compliance officer, seeing enough smoke to warrant a search for fire.
As The Post Standard reports, the current probe into the basketball team’s academics coincides with a shakeup in the Student-Athlete Academic Services Office that helps players stay eligible. Three people in the department have changed jobs since Summer 2011. The university also has advertised a new position – Assistant Provost for Student-Athlete Academic Services – which would implement strategies “to facilitate the academic success” of Syracuse athletes. A school official said last week that “the position was not created as a result of any NCAA request or required as part of any NCAA investigation, [but as part of] an effort in continuous improvement to ensure that, as we enter the ACC, we will have a seamless and focused effort to provide our student-athletes the integrated support that they need to excel academically.”
While that has been unfolding, an NCAA investigator was in Central New York in August questioning at least one former Syracuse associate dean about the university’s handling of a 2007 complaint against three basketball players. The former dean, David Potter, confirmed that NCAA Investigator Meg Babcock Locker, spent two hours interviewing him at his home in Manlius, New York, and that he recommended she also interview Syracuse professor and former dean Cathryn Newton about how the school handled an October 2007 complaint from a freshman who said she was sexually assaulted at an off-campus party by basketball players Jonny Flynn, Scoop Jardine, and Rick Jackson, also then-freshmen.
Neither Locker nor Newton would comment on whether they had spoken, although the latter did tell the paper that “[a]n arts and sciences student filed a complaint that was specific and credible, and that complaint did not progress in the usual way.” The NCAA’s interest in the case apparently dated back to 2007 or 2008, when a Syracuse philosophy professor, Sam Gorovitz, called the NCAA’s then-president, Myles Brand, and spoke to him about the allegations directly. Brand had his head of enforcement, David Didion, call Gorovitz, but when Brand died in 2009, the inquiry apparently languished.
According to The Post Standard archives, after Potter got Syracuse to re-open the case in 2008, the university’s judicial board found that three players and one other student were not guilty of sexual assault but that they were responsible for conduct “that threatened the mental health” of the reporting student. All were placed on disciplinary probation through the Spring 2011 semester, ordered to perform 30 hours of community service and to attend gender-sensitivity and domestic violence educational programs, and required to be evaluated to determine if they need any further counseling. The case was also heard in August 2008 by an Onondaga County grand jury, which did not charge the three basketball players with any criminal offenses.
Ridpath, the former compliance officer, noted that while the NCAA puts a four-year statute of limitations on most infractions, there is no expiration date for investigating more serious cases of disregarding the rules. Presumably, that would cover the alleged irregularities in the sexual assault matter and “would certainly be the case if they were [improperly] trying to keep kids eligible.” He also indicated that the breadth of the investigation and the fact that the NCAA traveled to conduct interviews signal that the inquiry is significant.
Syracuse’s administrative response has been a steady refusal to confirm or deny the existence or status or this latest alleged investigation and a pledge to work with the NCAA on all things compliance. This is neither unexpected nor improper. As in the corporate world, a desire to maintain privilege and confidentiality as regards investigations is important and respected. He same can’t be said for the response of Jim Boeheim.
ESPN.com reported that when asked about the investigation of his program before a first-round tournament game in San Jose last Wednesday, the basketball coach said, “[s]ame story they had last year at this time. I guess that’s annual. I guess next year we’ll get it again.” Boeheim would not answer any specific questions about the reports but said he wasn’t bothered by the timing.
“We’re concerned about playing Montana,” he said. “What people write or say, you know, there’s 30,000 people in the Dome yelling at me all the time. People yell at their television sets. I tell them I can’t hear them, but they still yell at them. There’s no distractions for me. And these players, there’s absolutely no distractions for them. They’re here to play Montana, and that’s it.”
In the era of stepped-up enforcement that the NCAA has promised, this tone at the top – and Boeheim IS the top of the basketball program – cannot be good for Syracuse. Whether the allegations against the school are well-founded or not, playing the “I can’t be worried about possible cheating and assaults with Montana in the crosshairs” is both philosophically and tactically problematic. It is just the type of attitude that the NCAA has pledged to adjust and underestimating its commitment to doing just that is institutionally dangerous.
Just ask Gene Smith and Ohio State.