LAFAYETTE — The NCAA investigation into the alleged wrongs done by former Louisiana-Lafayette assistant football coach David Saunders is, for all intents and purposes, complete.
What remains is a final verdict on the depth of the sanctions to be levied on the university, which likely won’t come before the end of the season. Based on the NCAA’s previous dealings with issues of this nature, trying to figure out what those might be is virtually impossible.
According to an investigation by CNN into how the NCAA punishes cases of academic fraud, the only consistent thing about the punishments is a lack of consistency.
CNN had three university researchers look into 39 cases of academic fraud since 1990, and the results varied.
Two examples brought up by the investigation: academic fraud at Arkansas State and Florida State, both in the past decade. After the investigation into Arkansas State, where 31 athletes were found to have participated while ineligible, NCAA sanctions included two years of probation, one scholarship reduction for both football and basketball for two seasons, 50 vacated wins over four sports and a $43,500 fine.
The NCAA deemed Florida State to have allowed 61 ineligible athletes to compete across 10 sports according to its March 2009 ruling, but those penalties were vastly different. In some cases, they were worse: four years of probation, vacation of all wins in which those 61 athletes participated in and a greater reduction in scholarships.
But despite having almost twice as many ineligible athletes compete in a far greater array of sports, Florida State was not hit with a fine.
Last month, in another academic fraud case, Southern Methodist learned it would be without men’s basketball coach Larry Brown for 30 percent of the season for failure “to promote an atmosphere of compliance within his program,” though it acknowledged in the punishment that Brown “did not have direct knowledge or involvement in the misconduct.”
SMU, whose men’s golf program was sanctioned for a different violation, also was forced to vacate wins, pay a $5,000 fine plus 1 percent of its total budget for men’s basketball and golf, a total reduction of nine scholarships and a postseason ban for the 2015-16 season. SMU is appealing several of the sanctions.
UL-Lafayette has taken the first step toward its punishment with self-imposed sanctions outlined in its response to the NCAA’s notice of allegations.
Included in those are vacating its nine wins from the 2011 season, two years of probation, a total reduction of 17 scholarships over three years, a reduction in official recruiting visits and a restriction in the amount of time coaches can initiate contact with recruits to a three-week period.
The university also noted that, while it wouldn’t self-impose a fine, it “calculated that an approximate $60,000 financial penalty could be prescribed by the hearing panel.”
How close the NCAA sticks to those self-imposed penalties is anybody’s guess, but it likely depends on several details of the case and how they’re weighed by the hearing panel of the Committee on Infractions.
First are the levels of misconduct. The NCAA’s notice of allegations deemed that all four allegations against Saunders were Level I violations, the most severe in the NCAA rule book.
In its response to the notice of allegations, UL-Lafayette agreed with the majority of the allegations but did not agree that the evidence supported Allegation 2 — that Saunders provided cash benefits to a student-athlete. The penalties could swing wildly depending on which side of Allegation 2 the hearing panel falls on.
Next are the aggravating and mitigating factors of the violations. Aggravating factors, by the NCAA’s definition, are “circumstances that warrant a higher range of penalties.” Mitigating factors are “circumstances that warrant a lower range of penalties.” These are weighed against each other when determining the penalty, though it is based on a judgment call rather than a total sum. The fact that UL-Lafayette has more mitigating factors (three) than aggravating factors (two) doesn’t matter if the Committee on Infractions deems the aggravating factors carry more weight.
The aggravating factors against UL-Lafayette are the fact that multiple Level I violations were alleged to have occurred and that the violations caused “significant ineligibility or substantial harm to a student-athlete or prospective student-athlete.”
While the notice of allegations clearly states that the NCAA believed Saunders committed those violations independently, it also states that he “did so while acting in his capacity as an institutional staff member,” making both aggravating factors attributable to UL-Lafayette.
The mitigating factors involve UL-Lafayette’s self-imposed penalties, its helpfulness in the investigation and its history of self-reporting secondary (Level III) violations. There were five aggravating factors against Saunders himself, and no mitigating factors.
At some point in the coming months, the Committee on Infractions will meet to decide what it deems to be an appropriate punishment.
What those penalties will be is anybody’s guess.