HBO documentary raises age-old question: Why is the NCAA so slow to act?

Pete Thamel
·6-min read

The documentary “The Scheme” featuring basketball fast-talker Christian Dawkins aired on HBO Tuesday night. The documentary gave a wide audience a chance to see the interplay between Dawkins and high-profile coaches like LSU’s Will Wade and Arizona’s Sean Miller.

The exchanges on the taped phone calls were reported weeks ago by Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel, and they certainly are more visceral when heard live. Miller and Wade are clearly wheeling and dealing to procure players.

It was juicy stuff, adding another layer of intrigue to the ongoing NCAA infractions cases against those schools. In the greater college basketball space, the documentary served a dual purpose.

It landed at the end of the third basketball season since the infamous day in September of 2017 where the FBI held a finger-wagging press conference about the ills of the basketball black market. And more than two-and-a-half years after all the bold talk, the general basketball environment has remained largely unchanged.

All the optimism and Pollyannaish notions of the sport being cleaned up in the wake of the federal investigation has long since faded away. Business as usual has returned to the black market, and coaches see the lack of significant NCAA consequences to high-profile coaches as enabling that behavior.

“It makes me sick to my stomach,” said a major conference coach. “It would be convenient to think things are really changing, but when you’re on the inside on a daily basis, they really aren’t. That’s the truth.

“The more time that elapses before anything comes to fruition, the more brazen people are going to become in getting away with the same types of things.”

Since the early days of the federal investigation, the same question has echoed through the college coaching landscape: “When’s something going to happen?” The only clear answer, even now, is no time soon.

Arizona coach Sean Miller directs his team during a game against Washington on March 11, 2020. (Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
Arizona coach Sean Miller directs his team during a game against Washington on March 11, 2020. (Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

More than two-and-a-half years since the infamous FBI press conference, the NCAA is nowhere near the finish line. What’s going to happen to coaches like Wade, Miller, Kansas’ Bill Self, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl and Iona’s Rick Pitino?

Without accounting for any delays inherent to the coronavirus, don’t expect anything finalized in any of those cases, if you include appeals, until around the end of the 2020-21 season at the earliest. And in some cases not until the end of the following year.

The coaches will keep coaching their teams, collecting their checks and the university administrators will keep holding their breath. Meanwhile, the NCAA will execute the same clunky, Byzantine and ineffective process that’s helped perpetuate this widespread culture of cheating. (In terms of length, these NCAA investigations are headed toward the infamy of recent cases involving UNC and Syracuse, which lingered endlessly over the landscape.)

The NCAA’s built-in excuse with the cases is that they had to wait more than a year to get the go-ahead from the federal government to conduct their own investigations. The first reports of the NCAA getting a nod to go ahead in some of the cases came in November of 2018.

In the year-and-a-half since, notices of allegations have been sent to NC State, Kansas, Oklahoma State, USC, TCU and South Carolina. (Auburn hasn’t confirmed it’s received the notice yet, but that’s been widely expected.) NCAA officials would argue they’ve worked somewhat quickly.

But even without the world on pause from the coronavirus, the timelines for the cases awaiting notices of allegations are going to continue to unfold slowly. All while programs like LSU, Arizona, Auburn and Kansas win games, recruiting battles and their coaches continue to make millions.

For the sake of timelines, Kansas has been one of the quicker cases. (The NCAA was able to gather much of the information from the federal trial.) The NCAA delivered a harsh notice of allegations with five Level 1 violations in September of 2019. The university responded with enough bluster that the retort could have been written by one of the press secretaries that have turnstiled through the current presidential administration.

Kansas clearly wants to keep Bill Self as coach, and they will at least through next season. With the timeline of a potential Committee on Infractions hearing coming somewhere around July, an infractions report and appeal would likely cover him through next year.

For Arizona with Miller and LSU with Wade, the whole NCAA process projects out to the middle of the 2021-22 season. (The same estimate is an 18-month process after the notice of allegations arrives.)

LSU coach Will Wade signals to his team during a game against Arkansas on March 4, 2020. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
LSU coach Will Wade signals to his team during a game against Arkansas on March 4, 2020. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

At some point, a school may receive enough information to trigger a firing of the coach. And perhaps at Arizona and LSU the notice of allegations – expected in the next few months – would be that tipping point. But that’s relying on the universities to stop daring the NCAA to enforce its rules, as this whole process has become one long game of chicken where schools with elite coaches have happily played along. And, really, they’ve won.

They are milking big crowds and gaudy records, knowing the NCAA’s historic enforcement impotence is ground in its four-corners execution. “It’s egregious,” said another power conference coach of the length of time it’s taken. “I don’t think schools are embarrassed anymore.”

Both LSU and Arizona have altered their coach contracts since the initial flurry of allegations. (Wade, for example, could be fired for cause if the NCAA issues a notice of allegations that includes a Level I or Level II violation.)

With Louisville having yet to receive its notice of allegations, this means any individual punishment that could end up being attached to Pitino won’t impact his entire first season coaching at Iona. The process won’t likely be complete by then. That means for Louisville, they could end up with program punishments – like a potential postseason ban – that could come into play for the 2021-22 season at the earliest. Or, five full seasons after the federal case broke.

Attorney Stu Brown, a veteran of NCAA cases, likes to joke that all coaches want the infractions process to move quickly until it’s their process. He sees the universities being slow to respond with actions toward their coaches as indicative of them not acting without the full extent of the information.

“When unsubstantiated information gets out in the public domain, the question is why hasn’t a school acted more quickly or decisive,” he said. “Oftentimes, there are legal reasons for schools not to jump the gun.”

Three full seasons after the story first broke, the only safe prediction is that things with the NCAA enforcement process will proceed slowly.

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