Behind The Scenes Of An NCAA Investigation

July 13th, 2017 | by Dan Matheson
Behind The Scenes Of An NCAA Investigation


I investigated major NCAA violations for nine years as a member of the NCAA enforcement staff.  The NCAA infractions process is a mysterious side of college athletics that few people understand due to the level of confidentiality maintained during an investigation.  Enforcement staff members even keep details such as travel destinations secret from colleagues in other NCAA departments so as not to reveal which schools might be under investigation.  In this piece, I will pull back the curtain on the infractions program to help readers understand what goes into an NCAA investigation.  


How Do NCAA Investigations Begin?

All investigations begin with information.  Some of the more surprising sources of information in my years as an investigator included:

– A former student-athlete who informed me that two of his former teammates used fraudulent transcripts to become athletically eligible and that the school had failed to investigate the phony documents.

– A former part-time team statistician who informed me that he had written several academic papers for student-athletes and a prospective student-athlete, was paid for the papers by a former athletics academic advisor, and that he had told an assistant coach about the papers.

– A mother of a former student-athlete who informed me that a coach had violated NCAA rules while recruiting her son.

The enforcement staff receives information through anonymous phone calls and emails, media stories, confidential sources, investigation interviews, school self-reports, and many other sources.  Investigators evaluate the initial information and use it to decide where to begin in setting up formal interviews with individuals who might have additional information.

Why Do NCAA Investigations Take So Long?

Critics complain that it takes too long to conclude NCAA infractions cases.  There are many reasons that cases can drag out for a year or more, and I can assure you that the enforcement staff does everything it can to reduce the length of its cases.  Some examples of things behind the scenes that cause infractions cases to last longer than schools, coaches, student-athletes, and fans consider reasonable include:

– Scheduling and conducting interviews.  The enforcement staff and school usually jointly conduct interviews.  That involves scheduling interviews with potentially dozens of student-athletes, coaches, administrators, university staff, boosters, and non-university individuals.  The process of lining up interviews with so many people can involve months of scheduling and several trips by the enforcement staff around the country.

– Responding to information requests.  The enforcement staff often requests such things as phone records, emails, academic transcripts, bank records, and other documentation related to alleged violations.  The enforcement staff gives schools and individuals sufficient time to gather and submit the requested evidence and then reviews the information to determine its relevance.  That process can take several weeks.

– Dealing with people who are not under the NCAA’s jurisdiction.  Scheduling interviews and requesting documents from current coaches, student-athletes, and administrators is usually much more efficient than requesting the same cooperation from former student-athletes, former coaches, and others who are not required to comply with an NCAA investigation.  If the enforcement staff needs to interview someone, such as a former student-athlete, but that individual initially refuses to cooperate, the enforcement staff typically makes several requests for cooperation before giving up.  The process of reaching out, often through an attorney representing the individual, waiting for responses, and trying to impress upon an individual and their attorney the importance of cooperating with the investigation can take several weeks.

– Lawyers representing schools, coaches, student-athletes, and other individuals involved in cases.  It is important that everyone who wants an attorney in an NCAA investigation is able to have one, but those attorneys add another layer to scheduling delays.  When the enforcement staff is required to coordinate the schedules of four or more people (compliance officer, school’s attorney, interviewee, and interviewee’s attorney, at a minimum) in order to interview one person, delays are often unavoidable.

– Other due process protections.  Despite what critics say, the NCAA rules contain several due process protections to give schools and coaches a fair chance to defend themselves.  In addition to allowing anyone involved in a case to have a personal attorney, other procedures that help maintain a balance between the NCAA’s enforcement responsibility and the rights of schools and coaches to present a strong defense against allegations include:

– At the conclusion of an investigation, the NCAA enforcement staff puts its formal allegations in writing so the school and involved coaches can see precisely which rules they are charged with violating, exactly how the allegation is framed up, and information that the enforcement staff may use at a hearing to prove the allegation.

– The school and any coaches charged with violations receive access to all pertinent evidence collected by the enforcement staff in the case, such as transcripts of interviews and other documentation, and they submit written responses to each allegation against them.  

– After the enforcement staff receives all written responses, the staff holds a prehearing conference with the school and any involved coaches.  By the time of the prehearing, each side has seen the other’s arguments, and in some cases, the enforcement staff will consider dropping an allegation or conducting more interviews if the school or an accused coach raises enough doubt about an allegation.

– The enforcement staff provides a final written summary of the case to all parties with additional details and arguments laid out before a hearing.

– After all written documents are submitted, the members of the Committee on Infractions review them and hold a formal hearing that can last a full day or more and provides each side with a chance to present its case before an impartial decision-making body.  Following the hearing, the committee authors a thorough report outlining its decision, any penalties, and its reasoning.    


What Is An NCAA Enforcement Interview Like?

The movie “The Blind Side” depicted NCAA interviews in dramatic Hollywood fashion.  The movie scenes were far more exciting than typical interviews during investigations and contained many inaccuracies, such as the investigator preventing anyone else from participating in the interview and strutting around the room aggressively questioning the interviewee in a hostile tone.  I know, because a friend and former colleague of mine on the enforcement staff conducted the real-life interviews with then student-athlete Michael Oher in that case, and she did not behave at all like the actress who portrayed her in the film – no enforcement staff member behaves like that during interviews.

As indicated above, when the enforcement staff interviews an individual about information that might adversely affect them, the investigator gives them an opportunity to have an attorney, per NCAA Bylaw 19.5.4.  Usually there are several people involved in an interview – one or more representatives from the involved school, including an attorney hired by the school who specializes in NCAA infractions cases, and an attorney representing the individual being interviewed.  The investigator records the interview so there is an accurate record of everything discussed that all parties can review later.  Investigators typically ask several factual questions and, toward the end of the interview, present any inconsistencies between what the interviewee reported and what others previously reported or what evidence is contained in documentation.  Those questions provide the interviewee a fair chance to present their side of the story on any disputed points.  Once the interview concludes, it is up to the enforcement staff to weigh the evidence received from all sources to determine what is most believable and whether there is sufficient evidence to support allegations of violations.

What Happens During A Committee on Infractions Hearing?

The final step in most NCAA infractions cases is a formal hearing, usually in a hotel conference room, before a panel of committee members who volunteer their service to the NCAA.  Committee members are athletics department and other university administrators, former NCAA coaches, and individuals from outside college athletics, such as judges and attorneys in private practice.  The lead investigator on the case from the enforcement staff presents on behalf of the staff.  The school sends several representatives, usually including an attorney retained specifically for the case.  Any coaches charged by the enforcement staff with alleged violations are also present, and they usually also have attorneys representing them during the hearing.  The hearing proceedings are closed to the public and the media.

The enforcement staff, the school, and the coaches orally present their positions on each alleged violation.  Everyone who presents remains seated – no one stands at a podium or walks around the room while presenting.  There are no witnesses called to the stand to testify and face cross-examination, as one would see in a courtroom.  All witness testimony comes from the interviews done leading up to the hearing, and, as explained above, those interviews usually include NCAA and school representatives, and all parties have the chance to ask questions of witnesses during the interviews and subsequently review the interview transcripts and conduct follow-up interviews, if needed.  There are many reasons NCAA hearings do not include cross-examination of witnesses, but most importantly, the NCAA lacks subpoena power to require witnesses to appear at hearings.  Key witnesses could be scattered all over the country unable to travel to the hearing or unwilling to cooperate.  Thus, relying on witnesses to testify in person during hearings to establish the record of evidence in the case would lead to gaping holes in the information developed by the committee and undermine its decision-making process.

Following presentations on each alleged violation by the enforcement staff, school, and coaches, the committee members ask questions.  This is where the committee attempts to cut through the slick presentations and press various individuals in the room.  My experience was that the committee members were generally tough but fair in their questioning.  They came prepared with questions that arose during their reading of the written materials in the case file, they listened to the oral presentations and developed additional questions, and when they began questioning someone, they did not let them off the hook with flimsy responses.

One of my favorite moments during committee questioning in a hearing involved a coach who, throughout my investigation, insisted that a student-athlete had a twin sister (she did not), and that everyone who believed the coach was involved in NCAA violations with the student-athlete was wrong because it was actually the athlete’s twin sister.  The coach stuck with that preposterous story in front of the committee during the hearing despite the committee members giving her every opportunity to correct herself now that she was facing them.  The committee members left the hearing room flabbergasted and had little choice but to ultimately hit the coach with serious individual penalties.

The NCAA infractions process can be, at times, adversarial, but at the conclusion of a hearing, all parties usually shake hands and recognize that the outcome of the case is up to the committee after each side put forth its strongest arguments.  The enforcement staff and the same small handful of specialist attorneys around the country who represent schools and coaches work together frequently on opposing sides, so there is little to be gained from antagonizing each other or developing grudges.  The relationships remain mostly professional, and several attorneys now representing schools and coaches even began their careers as NCAA enforcement staff investigators.

Investigating cases, researching the NCAA rules, writing allegations and case summaries, presenting cases to the Committee on Infractions, and engaging in spirited debate with opposing attorneys during hearings was a stimulating intellectual challenge that I thoroughly enjoyed during my years on the enforcement staff.  I hope that this piece clears up some of the questions that people often have about an important part of college athletics that is so misunderstood.

Dan Matheson About Dan Matheson
Dan Matheson, J.D., is director of the University of Iowa Sport & Recreation Management program. Prior to joining the Iowa faculty, Matheson was an NCAA associate director of enforcement and the New York Yankees baseball operations director. He serves on Iowa’s Presidential Committee on Athletics and is a dynamic keynote speaker and panelist who has received multiple teaching honors.

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