Jim Tressel and Ohio State are the latest alleged NCAA offenders to lawyer up in a way that makes sense for them -- but makes a mockery of the system.
Both have hired former NCAA enforcers who moved to the other side of the aisle. Now that they've left the prosecution for the defense table, these former NCAA insiders are able to find loopholes in the NCAA rulebook one of them helped write, or in the enforcement manual partially written by another. Or they use their cozy relationship with people still at the NCAA -- textbook, meet conflict of interest -- to find a way to minimize damages.
|Jim Tressel's mission might be the now-familiar 'mitigate the damage.' (US Presswire)|
The loophole defense worked for Louisville, and don't be surprised if it works again somewhere else. Former NCAA compliance bulldog Chuck Smrt now is at The Compliance Group -- a consulting firm that advises schools on compliance issues -- where his bio credits him with "drafting many of the [NCAA's] enforcement procedures." And meet Steve Morgan, who works alongside Glazier at Bond, Schoeneck & King, a law firm that represents scores of schools. Before joining that firm, Morgan spent more than 20 years at the NCAA, where he literally crafted the language for portions of the rulebook.
There are other ways to beat the NCAA, of course. UConn found such a way, avoiding significant penalties even after Jim Calhoun was found guilty of not creating an atmosphere of compliance in his basketball program. UConn pulled that off by making human shields of two Calhoun staffers, Beau Archibald and Pat Sellers, who were deemed expendable if their departures could protect Calhoun and the program he built. Which they did. UConn's attorney was Rick Evrard -- once a high-ranking NCAA official, now a lawyer for Bond, Schoeneck & King.
After helping UConn, Evrard began advising North Carolina during the NCAA's investigation into dual scandals -- one academic, the other agent-related -- within the program of football coach Butch Davis. Against all odds, Davis remains in his job. One of his assistant coaches, John Blake, does not. He resigned shortly after UNC hired Evrard.
In an email to CBSSports.com, Evrard wrote that a typical infractions case "is not adversarial, rather a joint effort between the institution and the NCAA to learn the facts of a particular situation, then apply the rules and determine if a violation occurred. Generally, we are given a specific charge from the institution's president as to what services they wish us to provide."
Evrard made no mention of scapegoating, and I have no doubt that he would object to such a characterization. David Ridpath would be on the other side of that argument. Who is David Ridpath? He's a former scapegoat.
"That's the playbook: Let's all agree on who we can pin this on to mitigate the damage," said Ridpath, noting that it happened to him.
Ridpath was Marshall University's compliance director in 1999 when the NCAA found football players working bogus jobs for boosters. Marshall had hired former NCAA enforcement director Richard Hilliard of the Indianapolis law firm Ice Miller -- and with Hilliard at the helm, Marshall's strategy was to appease the NCAA by pinning the problems on Ridpath. He lost his job, and the football team took only a glancing blow.
But then Ridpath sued Marshall and Hilliard -- and received settlements of $207,000 from the school and $25,000 from the former NCAA investigator. Today he's a professor at Ohio University, still marveling at what happened to him.
"Coaches almost always survive, because they're the most valuable and politically powerful people involved," Ridpath said. "The coach gets sent to a compliance seminar. Someone else takes the fall."
Catch the reference to Jim Tressel? The Ohio State football coach will be sent to a compliance seminar next month in Tampa as part of his punishment for hiding NCAA violations by several players. That's not the end of it for Tressel, or for Ohio State. The NCAA Committee on Infractions hears the case Aug. 12, but Tressel attacked first by hiring a former Committee on Infractions chairman, Gene Marsh of the Birmingham law firm Lightfoot, Franklin & White. Ohio State loaded the deck farther by hiring Smrt.
Ridpath believes he knows how the Ohio State case will end -- with Tressel keeping his job. How? He doesn't know how. He doesn't want to know how.
"I just have this feeling Tressel is going to survive," Ridpath said. "Gene Marsh knows the system and also knows the people on that [NCAA infractions] committee very well. They've worked together. They've played golf together. The relationship is much cozier than it should be, an obvious conflict of interest issues that's close to fraud."
Not so, says Evrard.
"The process of working with institutions includes working jointly with the NCAA," he wrote in the e-mail. "When hired by an institution, we will work collaboratively with the [NCAA] to establish facts, then use all of the procedural tools available to determine whether something went wrong. If so, we again work with the [NCAA] on behalf of the institution, to determine what the next steps are for the school."
Sounds cozy. If I was a school, I'd want that kind of coziness. But I'm not a school -- I'm an outsider who wants the NCAA to hammer cheaters. Not "work collaboratively" in a "joint effort" with cheaters to "determine what the next steps are."
But no mistake: I understand why schools like Ohio State and UConn, and coaches like Tressel and Calhoun, would hire former NCAA enforcers to blunt an NCAA investigation. If I were them, I'd do the same thing.
And now I'm starting to understand why the cheaters tend to get off so easy.