MU athletics thinks it has a chance to overturn a number of NCAA sanctions, including postseason bans, in its appeal to the NCAA Committee on Infractions, Director of Athletics Jim Sterk told a group of reporters Monday. Because of exemplary cooperation distinction and precedent, Sterk indicated the athletics department has hope it can emerge from the appeals process with only probation and vacated wins sanctions intact.
MU is required to submit its initial appeal, making its defense after the Committee on Infractions dealt postseason bans and other sanctions on the athletics department in an academic fraud report released Jan. 31, to the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee by Friday.
The school will hear back several days after its initial submission. Then it will have 30 days to submit its official appeal. The university intends to hire more outside counsel for its appeal team as the process develops, according to Sterk and Andy Humes, associate athletic director for compliance.
The two answered questions from reporters for about 40 minutes Monday while outlining the grounds on which the department thinks it can obtain relief on penalties. Here are some of the notable topics:
MU’s counter against the penalty matrix
When Sterk was asked what he thought should be overturned, he acknowledged there were violations warranting some degree of consequence but said MU had only expected to receive department probation and vacated wins.
When asked to clarify if all other sanctions aside from those two are attainable penalties to overturn, Sterk said, “Those are reasonable given precedent and exemplary cooperation.”
As the ruling stands, Missouri’s academic fraud case is classified as a “Level One Standard” penalty on the NCAA’s penalty matrix. That lies between “Level One Aggravated,” the worst weight of penalty, and “Level One Mitigated,” one step less serious than the current standard.
The penalty matrix states Level One Standard automatically denotes a one- or two-year postseason ban. Level One Mitigated leaves it open to a one-year postseason ban or no ban at all. This means Missouri needs to somehow present enough mitigating factors in the appeal to convince the appeals committee to lighten the classification of MU’s violation via abuse of discretion, or to utilize an NCAA bylaw that allows penalties above or below the confines of the matrix.
“It’s not that their hands are totally tied,” Humes said. “There are other options and other cases, especially cases that have exemplary cooperation. Often times, the bylaw is used to provide less penalties than what’s in the matrix. I do think we’ll be, on the appeal, asking them to look at the classification of the case as well as the penalties. So if it was a Level One Mitigated, then it is a lower range of penalties. Even with a classification this high, we feel that the penalties themselves, even within the matrix, don’t follow precedent.”
Precedent and exemplary cooperation were the two mitigating factors that Sterk and Humes focused on throughout the media roundtable. But the Committee on Infractions is expected to counterargue that it already rewarded MU for the exemplary cooperation by not giving the maximum two-year postseason ban allowed by the matrix. Humes was asked how Missouri plans to rebut that argument.
“Again, I think that flies in the face of precedent,” Humes said. “For this type of case, getting any type of postseason ban is unheard of. To say exemplary kept you from getting a longer postseason ban, that would be a real stretch in terms of precedent.”
Some have suggested MU should sue the NCAA if the sanctions are not overturned in the appeal. Asked if that would be a realistic option Monday, Humes said, “It would be hard to come up with a specific cause of action over penalties. It’s a voluntary association and the rules are set up within that association. That doesn’t mean the laws just don’t apply. There are still potentially ways that could happen. I think it’s pretty unrealistic at this point.”
The reason that would make it difficult for MU to sue, according to Humes — that the NCAA is an independent governing body with voluntary members and its own laws — is also the reason lawyers have said Missouri will probably not win its appeal.
Missouri adds additional counsel
The Tigers retained collegiate sports lawyer Mike Glazier to lead their appeal the day the NCAA announced the committee’s decision, but they have since turned their counsel into a group.
Sterk said Missouri has added Richard J. Evrard, who, like Glazier, also works for Bond, Schoeneck & King, and Christopher L. Griffin, a lawyer in Tampa, Florida, who has served on the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions at times.
Evrard represented the University of North Carolina during the most noted NCAA investigation into academic dishonesty or fraud in an athletic department.
Other Missouri graduates who are also attorneys will contribute in an advisory role as the general counsel keeps them informed.
Of course, hiring additional legal counsel is not free. Sterk and Humes said they don’t know what the overall appeal will cost at this point. Humes said that it will be based on hourly rates and the length of the appeal process, to name some of the costs.
“It won’t be cheap,” Humes said.
Sterk emphasizes distinction between NCAA and NCAA Committee on Infractions
To Sterk and Humes, there is an important distinction between the NCAA, the Committee on Infractions and the decision the committee made.
Missouri’s ire is not directed at the governing body of the NCAA or even with the people on the committee, they said. It’s with the decision the committee members made.
There’s been no lack of anger with the NCAA among fans on social media. But public statements made by the department don’t follow that trend. What Sterk and coaches have said in response to the penalties has focused on disagreement with the committee’s decision, not the NCAA.
The NCAA did not have staff members who voted on the committee.
“So I think making sure that we have the support of the NCAA is very important,” Sterk said. “The infractions staff that we worked with, that relationship and the result was positive on both fronts. This committee decided they weren’t going to listen to or accept the summary disposition, so they wanted to bring us in for the hearing and then made this decision. It’s just … it’s not acceptable, basically, where it ended up.”
Sterk added that he thinks Missouri’s relationship has to remain positive.
This was not the only time Sterk talked about the NCAA governing body during the roundtable. A reporter brought up a statement made by Jon Sundvold, the chair of the University of Missouri Board of Curators, who has expressed displeasure with the NCAA in addition to the committee’s decision. In the statement, Sundvold said many Power Five schools “might question the need for the NCAA as a governing body” if there is not an admission of fault and a correction by the NCAA.
Sterk was asked if uniting to break away from the NCAA has ever gained traction in conversations among athletic directors.
“It hasn’t been discussed in any of our meetings, national meetings or, I don’t think, any sidebars either … yet,” Sterk said.
And if that will ever change…
“Who knows?” Sterk said.
‘Make it Right’
MU launched a new page on its website Sunday with the campaign name “Make it Right,” a play on Sterk’s motto as AD, “Win it Right.” Sterk said the page will serve to both update fans on the appeals process and continue to push the university’s message of defiance against the sanctions.
“We wanted to make sure we sent the right message,” Sterk said. “We were trying to be strategic as far as ... we can’t give everything as far as our appeal, but we can get information out.”
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.