On March 6, 2015, the Committee on Infractions (“COI”) issued its decision involving infractions committed by Syracuse University (“Syracuse” or “Institution”), in which the COI found violations of NCAA legislation in the men’s basketball and football programs. On the basis of those findings, COI determined that this was a major infractions case and imposed penalties accordingly.
This case centered on violations of NCAA bylaws governing academic fraud, instances of extra benefits, the institution’s failure to follow its written drug policy, impermissible activities surrounding the conduct of a representative of the institution’s athletics interest and student-athletes’ involvement in promotional activities and outside competition. Additionally, the case also involved a former staff member’s failure to cooperate with the NCAA enforcement staff’s investigation.
In considering Syracuse’s appeal, the NCAA Division I Infractions Appeals Committee (“Committee”) reviewed the notice of appeal; the transcript of the institution’s October 30-31, 2014, hearing before COI and the submissions by Syracuse and COI.
In reviewing this case, the Committee may overturn factual findings and conclusions that one or more violations occurred only if:
a. The hearing panel’s finding clearly is contrary to the evidence presented to the panel;
b. The facts found by the hearing panel do not constitute a violation of the NCAA constitution and bylaws; or
c. There was a procedural error and but for the error, the hearing panel would not have made the finding or conclusion. [Bylaw 184.108.40.206]
“A showing that there was some information that might have supported a contrary result will not be sufficient to warrant setting aside a finding nor will a showing that such information might have outweighed the information on which the committee based a finding. The Infractions Appeals Committee . . . will set aside a finding only on a showing that information that might have supported a contrary result clearly outweighed the information on which the Committee on Infractions based the finding.” (University of Mississippi Infractions Appeals Committee Public Report, May 1, 1995, Page No. 10)
The hearing panel determines the credibility of the evidence.
A penalty prescribed by the hearing panel, including determinations regarding the existence and weighing of any aggravating or mitigating factors, shall not be set aside on appeal except on a showing by the appealing party that the hearing panel abused its discretion. [Bylaw 220.127.116.11]
As the Committee stated in the Alabama State University case:
“…we conclude that an abuse of discretion in the imposition of a penalty occurs if the penalty: (1) was not based on a correct legal standard or was based on a misapprehension of the underlying substantive legal principles; (2) was based on a clearly erroneous factual finding; (3) failed to consider and weigh material factors; (4) was based on a clear error of judgment, such that the imposition was arbitrary, capricious, or irrational; or (5) was based in significant part on one or more irrelevant or improper factors.” [Alabama State University Infractions Appeals Committee Public Report, June 30, 2009, Page No. 23]
This case involved 14 violations, two of which were Level III and 12 of which were Level I or Level II, including academic extra benefits, ineligible competition, and lack of institutional control. These are very serious violations, as the institution recognized and acknowledged. The institution accepted responsibility for the majority of the violations. However, the institution appealed violations relating to academic extra benefits (Syracuse chose not to pursue appeal of this violation) as well as three penalties prescribed by the hearing panel:
1. Vacation of all wins from the academic years 2004-05, 2005-06, 2006-07, 2010-11 and 2011-12 in men’s basketball and 2004-05, 2005-06 and 2006-07 in football in which student-athlete Nos. 1 through 10 competed while ineligible;
2. The institution shall return to the NCAA all of the monies it has received to date through the former Big East Conference revenue sharing for its appearances in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and that are scheduled to be provided to the institution shall be withheld by the conference and forfeited to the NCAA; and
3. The total number of athletically related financial aid awards in men’s basketball shall be reduced by three awards during each of the 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years.
Vacation of Wins
This penalty requires the institution to vacate all wins from the academic years 2004-05, 2005-06, 2006-07, 2010-11 and 2011-12 in men’s basketball and 2004-05, 2005-06 and 2006-07 in football in which student-athlete Nos. 1 through 10 competed while ineligible.
Syracuse argued that factors articulated in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s report [Georgia Tech Infractions Appeals Committee Public Report, March 9, 2012, Page Nos. 14-15] that would significantly increase the likelihood of vacation of wins, should also be considered in evaluating whether a particular violation involving a particular student-athlete requires vacation of wins for games in which the student-athlete participated.
In the institution’s view, the hearing panel abused its discretion in that the vacation of wins, related to the extra benefit received by student-athlete No. 4, student-athlete No. 8 and student-athlete No. 9, in this penalty is inconsistent with the recent COI cases in which the vacation of record is “imposed in limited circumstances, and it frequently is not applied in cases involving extra benefit violations”; that virtually none of the factors articulated in the Georgia Tech case exist for student-athlete No. 4; and inadequate evidence to support a determination that student-athlete Nos. 8 and 9 were rendered ineligible.
COI argued the prescription of this penalty is not an abuse of discretion in this case where there are at least five factors that make vacation of wins particularly appropriate: academic fraud, serious intentional violations, a large number of violations, competition while academically ineligible and lack of institutional control. Further, the factors articulated in the Georgia Tech case are not used to determine whether a vacation of wins is appropriate, but “merely increases the likelihood of a vacation penalty.”
In reviewing the record before the Committee, the Committee found that the hearing panel did not abuse its discretion by prescribing the above-referenced penalities. As we noted in the Georgia Tech case:
“…it must be stated that the factors listed in the Southeast Missouri State case should not be seen as the only factors in which vacating can be imposed. In fact, a close reading of that decision suggests that “the likelihood of such a penalty is significantly increased when any of the aggravating factors are present.” [Southeast Missouri State University Committee on Infractions Report, June 18, 2008, Page No. 10] This does not require that any of them be present.” [Georgia Tech Infractions Appeals Committee Public Report, March 9, 2012, Page No. 15]
These factors are not requirements to identify when a vacation of wins penalty is appropriate in a particular case. They signal an increased likelihood of an imposition of a vacation of records penalty.
COI required the institution to return to the NCAA all of the monies it has received to date through the former Big East Conference revenue sharing for its appearances in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and that are scheduled to be provided to the institution shall be withheld by the conference and forfeited to the NCAA.
COI submitted a letter to this committee June 24, 2015, requesting permission to correct this penalty due to an error regarding the dates to which it applied. This request was granted and this penalty was modified to state:
“…the institution shall return to the NCAA all of the monies it has received to date through the former Big East Conference revenue sharing for its appearances in the 2011 and 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and that are scheduled to be provided to the institution shall be withheld by the conference and forfeited to the NCAA.”
With this modification of this penalty and based on appeal submissions, the Committee found the hearing panel did not abuse its discretion in prescribing this penalty.
Reductions in Athletics Awards
COI required the institution’s total number of athletically related financial aid awards in men’s basketball be reduced by three awards during each of the 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years.
The institution argued that (1) the penalty is disproportionate to the specific context of the case; (2) the penalty is inconsistent with prior infractions cases; (3) the hearing panel failed to explain why it was appropriate to deviate from precedent; and (4) this resulted in the hearing panel abusing its discretion when prescribing this penalty.
COI argued that each case has its own unique facts and the outcomes in other cases do not dictate the outcomes in this case; the percentage of the scholarship reduction in this case is commensurate, and in some cases lower than, with the percentage of scholarship reduction in other cases; and the hearing panel prescribed more lenient penalties using the old penalty structure.
Central to the resolution of whether the hearing panel abused its discretion is the role and effect of precedent – whether it was considered and weighed in this case. In the appeal submissions, Syracuse and COI compared and contrasted this case with a number of previous major infractions cases. The Committee reviewed those cases and believed that given the violations found in this case, the scholarship reduction is a departure from precedent.
Previously, the longest period of scholarship reduction is four years. In the University of Michigan case, a case described by COI as “one of the most serious ever to come before the committee,” the scholarships in the men’s basketball program were reduced by four total scholarships which could be spread over up to four years. [Michigan Committee on Infractions Public Report, May 8, 2003, Page No. 14].
The highest number of scholarship reductions occurred in the Texas Tech University (1998) case. In that case, there were violations related to eligibility certification, extra benefits, recruiting, unethical conduct, failure to monitor and lack of institutional control over seven years. [Texas Tech Committee on Infractions Public Report, August 4, 1998, Page Nos. 6 and 7] In the men’s basketball program, COI imposed a scholarship reduction of seven scholarships over three years. (Texas Tech Committee on Infractions Public Report, August 4, 1998, Page No. 35)
In the current case, the imposition of a scholarship reduction of a total of 12 scholarships over four years (three per year) is a deviation from precedent.
The Committee recognized that COI should not be strictly bound to previous decisions when circumstances of intercollegiate athletics were qualitatively different than those which presently obtain. However, this does not mean that prior decisions provide no restraint on or guidance to COI and the Committee, or that changes in the environment in which NCAA member institutions operate, alone, can justify ignoring those prior decisions. It means only that the guidance provided by prior decisions is, and always has been, a matter of judgment. [University of Southern California Infractions Appeals Committee Public Report, May 26, 2011, Page No. 21].
On appeal, the Committee looks to COI’s infractions decisions for explanation of the rationale for prescribed penalties, especially in the circumstances where there is a departure from precedent. In reviewing, the infractions decision in this case, the Committee was unable to determine how COI weighed precedent when prescribing the scholarship reduction penalty. Further, there appears to be no qualitative distinction in the record, as compared to the Michigan and Texas Tech cases, that would warrant the extent of the departure from prior precedent that was undertaken by COI in this case.
The hearing panel failed to consider and weigh material factors and therefore, abused its discretion in the imposition of this penalty.
The Committee affirmed the vacation of wins and financial penalties (with modification). The Committee modified the reduction in aid penalties to a total of eight (8) scholarship reductions with two (2) scholarship reductions in each of the next four (4) years. The removal of one scholarship per year reflects a penalty in line with the outer limits of penalties previously imposed for similar cases by COI.