Florida State's Unpleasant Vacation

For the second time in four years, Florida State University is challenging a major punishment of it by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, declaring itself to be a victim of unfair treatment by the sports group to which it belongs.

March 18, 2009

For the second time in four years, Florida State University is challenging a major punishment of it by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, declaring itself to be a victim of unfair treatment by the sports group to which it belongs.

The language President T.K. Wetherell employed Tuesday -- in announcing the university's decision to appeal an NCAA ruling this month forcing Florida State to vacate victories in 10 sports because of an academic scandal -- was tamer than that he used in 2005, when the university threatened to sue the NCAA over its challenge to Florida State's Seminole nickname and mascot. Calling the association's actions then "outrageous and insulting," Wetherell said that the university would "pursue all legal avenues to ensure that this unacceptable decision is overturned."

It worked -- two weeks later the association flip-flopped, taking Florida State off a list of institutions facing restrictions on participation in NCAA championships because of their use of Indian iconography deemed offensive.

Now the university has become the latest in a long line of NCAA members to take issue with how they've been treated by the association's Division I Committee on Infractions, which metes out penalties to rule-breaking coaches, teams and colleges in the NCAA's top competitive level. Because the games are played for high stakes (money and visibility) -- particularly in sports such as football and men's basketball -- actions the panel takes when its members perceive institutions to have gained a competitive advantage are closely scrutinized, and often resented.

They are relatively rarely challenged, though, especially since the association altered its procedures after a spate of controversies nearly two decades ago (including a lawsuit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court) to encourage colleges to cooperate with rather than to fight the NCAA's investigative process.

While appeals and direct legal challenges of NCAA infractions rulings are relatively rare, there is fairly regular grumbling about whether the Committee on Infractions has altered the standards it uses to judge allegations of wrongdoing, and the penalties it uses when it finds such charges to have merit. Categories of penalties come in and out of vogue; actions such as barring teams from postseason competition or playing on television used to be common, and are now much less so, in part because they are seen as punishing current players (and sometimes coaches) for the sins of their predecessors. "Crippling a program competitively in the future is in many cases the wrong way to go about it," Gene A. Marsh, a law professor at the University of Alabama and former member of the infractions panel, said in 2008.

The irony is that the penalty that the NCAA has begun using more heavily in recent years to focus on the athletes and coaches who actually engaged in wrongdoing -- vacation of victories and records from games in which ineligible athletes participated -- is precisely the penalty that Florida State is beefing about now. At a news conference Tuesday, Wetherell announced that Florida State would hire a lawyer (and former administrative law judge) to appeal the NCAA's order that the university vacate all wins involving 61 athletes in 10 sports who received improper academic assistance -- including answers to exams in online courses and help in preparing papers -- from three former athletics department staff members.

"We respect the NCAA and what they do, but we simply differ on this case," Wetherell said. "This will affect 525 student athletes who did nothing wrong, and 52 coaches who had no involvement at all. ... To suggest that they be penalized is wrong and unfair."

The idea behind requiring a college or university to vacate wins in which ineligible athletes participated is that those responsible for wrongdoing in the past are being punished, while the other penalties in the NCAA's quiver -- the aforementioned TV and playoff bans, as well as scholarship reductions -- affect current and future players and coaches. (The vacation penalty is also seen as an institutional sanction, designed to hold colleges -- in this case Florida State -- responsible for the fact that its officials inadequately monitored the tutors responsible for the widespread cheating. Wetherell complained that the panel had given short shrift to the university's aggressive investigation of initial allegations of wrongdoing, an inquiry that significantly broadened the scope of the case.)

In challenging the NCAA's vacation of victories, Florida State officials disputed the widely held notion that their primary concern was the fact that the penalty would undermine the legacy of the university's football coach, Bobby Bowden. Bowden has one fewer career victory than Pennsylvania State University's longtime coach, Joe Paterno, and if Florida State has to wipe out as many as 14 football wins from 2007 and 2008, it could end Bowden's chance of being the all-time winningest coach in big-time college football.

"This isn't just about Bobby Bowden's wins," Wetherell said during his news conference Tuesday; it's about the fact that the Division I infractions committee, he said, has seemed to develop on its own the criteria it uses for deciding whether to vacate victories in a certain case, in a way that's inappropriate for an organization that prides itself on representative governance.

"[W]e believe that the criteria for imposing a blanket penalty that vacates records should be established by the NCAA and its full membership, not by a committee using a seemingly ever changing and nebulous set of criteria," Wetherell said. In addition to appealing the panel's penalties, he said, Florida State also planned to send a letter to Myles Brand, the NCAA's president, "asking that the NCAA establish a blue ribbon committee composed of university and college presidents, athletic directors, coaches, faculty representatives, staff and student-athletes, as well as NCAA staff attorneys, to consider in a public forum the policy of vacating wins."

An NCAA spokeswoman said Tuesday that association officials had not received Wetherell's notice of appeal or his letter to Brand, and so could not comment on the views of Florida State officials.


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