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Shadows of Justice: The NCAA, the IARP, and the Battle for Independence

Part two of an investigative series looking behind-the-scenes at the NCAA's IARP cases

In this Hearings newsletter:

  1. Part two of an investigative series on the NCAA and IARP.

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Shadows of Justice: The NCAA, the IARP, and the Battle for Independence

This is the second part of a series looking inside the NCAA's IARP investigations. To read part one, click here.

Rick Pitino’s day in NCAA “court” finally came in the ballroom of the Sheraton Grand Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Beneath the panoramic views and pool-side cabanas, investigators working for the NCAA delivered a stunning argument against the Hall-of-Fame coach. They said he failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance because he was “too strict on compliance.” The allegation itself had already led to his firing.

One prominent lawyer, sitting on a supposedly independent panel overseeing the case, asked investigators if their recommendation was for Pitino to care less about compliance.

He was removed from his next NCAA infractions case and never participated in the IARP again.

The Louisville hearing clawed back the curtain and revealed a deeply rooted turmoil. The NCAA couldn’t stomach its own independent process. This marked the beginning of the end for the IARP, created just a few years prior to oversee infractions cases. Now, the NCAA has made clear they don't want any independent organization threatening its unchecked authority. On Tuesday, NCAA president Charlie Baker officially asked Congress to carve its enforcement arm into federal law.

It’s a concerning development for those who have seen the NCAA’s work first-hand. More than ten people involved in infractions cases over the last six years described to KUHearings what they saw as a troubling pattern within the NCAA: seemingly exaggerated charges handed down without due process and frequently lacking concrete evidence. These weren’t mere administrative blunders for many caught in the NCAA’s wrath. They were life-changing allegations.

The independent panelists weren't immune either. Even they seemed to face consequences for challenging the NCAA's narrative.

The lawyer removed from the panel after Louisville, Jeffrey Benz, is a titan in sports law. The BBC called him “amongst the most experienced judges” in sport. He worked as an independent judge on the 2002 Olympic bid scandal, a mediator for FIFA, and delivered a ruling on Maria Sharapova’s doping ban. If the NCAA wanted a legal ringer with industry-wide respect, Benz was it.

And he also was summarily dismissed, seemingly, for questioning their line of argument.

“I was removed without my knowledge or consent, and so far as I know to this day I did not violate any rule to justify this being done,” Benz said in an exclusive statement to KUHearings.

Multiple sources connected to the cases believe Benz was removed because his line of questioning was too critical of the NCAA’s allegations. In theory, this would’ve made him less likely to deliver favorable results to the NCAA in future rulings. Still, two witnesses with different roles in the Louisville hearing said there was nothing unprofessional about Benz’s line of questioning in the case.

“Nothing inappropriate happened,” said one panelist. “They may not have liked the fact that most of his complaints were about lack of due process for the institutions and for the coaches involved. They didn’t like the fact that he expected there to be due process.”

The surprising removal of Benz symbolized the NCAA's flighty relationship with the concept of an independent process.

Benz was supposedly removed for not attending a handful of education sessions before the Arizona hearing. The sessions, according to one source, were scheduled late at night for Benz, who was living overseas.

The education sessions were problematic in their own right. They were mostly, if not entirely conducted by recent NCAA employees – who would explain allegations, bylaws, and prior rules interpretations to the independent panel.

“At the same time I was getting removed, I was sitting on the case of UEFA and FIFA vs. Russia to remove them from the Champions League and World Cup,” Benz said. “In terms of dollar value, there’s nothing more significant in [sports] than that. And nobody indoctrinated me. I didn’t have to spend six to eight hours having my independence violated by people trying to tell me what to do or think. I was able to come to my own conclusions, and that’s how every other case I’ve ever had has been.”

The removal of the sports law heavyweight came amidst a tug-of-war within the landscape of the NCAA and college sports. While Benz delivered blunt questions to the organization, their foundational rock of amateurism was quickly crumbling.

In the end, the panel ruled Pitino committed no violations. And it appears Pitino’s legal team is still looking into the case.

The three-day undressing showed the NCAA for what it had become: an ineffective body whose “major” cases couldn’t withstand scrutiny by a first-year law class, let alone five experts with a combined 114 years of legal experience.

This graphic was released by NCAA PR. KUHearings added the text below.

Of all the NCAA’s IARP missteps, the addition of the Complex Case Unit, or CCU, may have been the most harmful to its mission.

The CCU consisted of different blue-chip law firms hired by the NCAA to investigate and argue the cases. The independent panel, where Benz sat, is a different group of 15 lawyers who hand down the rulings.

One of the biggest issues was simple: money. The 15 panelists made $5,000 per case and another $5,000 per year. Most panelists heard one or two cases in total. At the same time, the CCU members are believed to have earned an hourly rate. The costs, while unknown, are believed to be tremendous.

“The NCAA set up a system designed to fail as soon as it gave the CCU the right to earn an hourly rate,” Benz said. “The CCU had every incentive to take, and bill, its time.”

Another misuse of resources was the reinvestigation of each case. The CCU re-interviewed the same people, asked many of the same questions, and reviewed the same documents as NCAA Enforcement.

“They started an investigation that was effectively redundant,” said one source directly involved in an IARP case.

In the Arizona case, one source said the hearing panel scolded the CCU for presenting an out-of-context quote from an NCAA Enforcement interview. The source says the CCU plucked a sentence from a larger paragraph that completely changed its meaning in a “misleading and disingenuous” manner when used in isolation.

Multiple insiders independently questioned if the CCU had jurisdiction to drop major allegations against a school if they didn’t find evidence to back up the NCAA’s claim. To the people watching the process play out, it seemed like another misstep in due process and a dereliction of independence.

Their evidence: Why else would a team of lawyers argue that Pitino should be charged for being too strict on compliance?

The breaking point in the Louisville hearing came when Benz — and other panelists — criticized the investigation during the hearing.

The panel raised concerns when the CCU introduced new “red flags” against Pitino. The panel called it “discrete factual claims from years earlier.” The surprising information could have put Pitino at a disadvantage to defend himself.

But in the panel’s published decision document, it ruled the “red flags” were “void of any value or merit,” called them “prejudiced,” and cited “serious due process concerns.”

“Jeff [Benz] was very critical of that in the hearing,” said one source. “But also, it was a unanimous decision from the panel.”

According to an unnamed panelist, there was at least one instance where the panel’s slap-on-the-wrist rulings created apparent concern with the IARP staff. While no staff member pushed or pressured the independent group for a specific outcome, there was at least some small level of push-back in one case.

“They were very resistant to the conclusions reached by the panel,” said the panelist. “It was more along the lines of ‘Are you sure about this?’ This is going to be a shock to the membership?’ You could just feel that pressure was gonna blow back on them.”

The staff was right about something. The decisions blew back on the entire IARP and everyone involved.

An unexpected figure was involuntarily thrust into the Kansas case, and he isn’t happy about it.

Tidiane Drame was the legal guardian of former Kansas and NBA player Cheick Diallo. The Mailian-American helped bring Diallo to the United States through his Mali Hope Foundation.

Drame says he submitted his bank records to help one of his athletes, a soccer player at South Carolina, become eligible. He crossed out unrelated bank statements with a black marker. Without Drame’s permission, he says NCAA Enforcement staff sent his personal bank records to an expert who provided opinions on the redacted statements.

“I told [the NCAA] don’t share my bank information,” Drame said. “They lied to me. They told me they weren’t going to share it. I feel violated.”

The NCAA found a payment from Adidas consultant T.J. Gassanola in Drame’s bank records, alleging this was a major NCAA violation. Drame insists the money was for an Adidas-sponsored basketball camp in Mali and had nothing to do with Kansas. The NCAA alleged the payment was to entice Diallo to return to Kansas for another season. Diallo declared for the NBA Draft four days later.

Drame says the payment was between $5,000-$8,000. Diallo’s rookie contract was worth $2.5M.

This wasn’t the only questionable moment in the Kansas case.

In the attempt to negotiate a settlement, the CCU reduced or eliminated many of the NCAA’s allegations against Kansas and Bill Self. After it was ruled that a settlement wasn’t allowed, the CCU withdrew the new allegations. It went back to the older, harsher charges.

Once again, those with knowledge of the case were left wondering why the CCU would argue allegations they’d already dropped.

“If you thought you had all the information, you would’ve stayed with the second notice of allegations,” said one source. “It's like they were told, ‘You have to fight this.’ And then they did.”

During the Louisville hearing, the five panelists sat isolated at the front of the ballroom.

Also in the hearing, amidst the fake trees of the Sheraton Grand Hotel, one lawyer represented Pitino, a small legal team assembled for Louisville, and at least 20 NCAA employees, CCU investigators, and IARP staff members participated with another handful on Zoom.

The panel was outnumbered.

“It was a whole army, a platoon of these people,” said one source. “This was people [at the NCAA] wanting to control the outcome with maximum influence.”

The results of the hearings mattered deeply to the schools and the NCAA, but it didn’t get the people who were fired years earlier their jobs back. The initial NCAA allegations, many of which were ruled to be unproven and unfounded, completely altered the accused's lives.

Arizona fired its head coach Sean Miller. Louisville fired Pitino. Both coaches were absolved of any wrongdoing by the panel years later. In a press conference, the lead panelist said there was “grossly underwhelming” information that Louisville knew Adidas was paying players.

“They screwed over Pitino.” one source said. “He had a dream job. The university had a dream coach, and it all got fucked up over nothing.”

Pitino’s lawyer, Steven F. Stapleton, sent a damning statement on the case exclusively to KUHearings:

“Coach Pitino remains appreciative of the time and effort put into his case by the independent panel members. It is troubling that the NCAA and the CCU pursued proceedings against him without any factual basis. It is also troubling that the NCAA terminated the IARP, which consisted of panels of truly independent decision-makers. We have documented every detail of his case over the past five years and have the option to address it at the appropriate time.”

After the Pitino hearing and its problems, Benz got news of his removal from the Arizona case. He resigned from the panel shortly after. A top sports mind the IARP powers didn’t want around.

Which may be the biggest red flag of them all.

Note: This is the second part of a series looking inside the NCAA's IARP investigations. Part Three, hopefully coming next week, will look at false narratives, a confused public, and what took so long.

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Bill Self Calls Part One “Accurate”

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