It's often said that the coverup is worse than the crime -- and in college athletics, the twist on that old saw is that a college's or coach's failure to cooperate can often be worse than the original violation. If that wasn't clear to officials at Georgia Institute of Technology before Thursday, it should be now.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I Committee on Infractions imposed heavy penalties (including a $100,000 fine and four years' probation) on Georgia Tech Thursday for what, by all accounts, was at its core a relatively minor violation of its rules: allegations that a member of its football team accepted $312 worth of clothing as a gift.
But it became what the infractions panel called a "cautionary tale of conduct that [NCAA] member institutions should avoid," the committee asserts, because Georgia Tech officials acted in "combative" and "confrontational" ways that impeded rather than aided the association's investigation, in direct conflict with the principle of "cooperation" that the NCAA insists is at the core of its relationship with members.
"In doing so, the institution compounded the seriousness of this case, by adding onto what was originally an isolated instance of impermissible benefits and preferential treatment, extremely serious allegations that it failed to protect the integrity of the enforcement staff's investigation, violated the cooperative principle and failed to meet the conditions and obligations of the membership," the infractions panel said in its report on the case.
The case stems from a November 2009 investigation into allegations that a member of the football team accepted the clothing from "a friend of an employee at a sports agency in Atlanta," according to the NCAA's report. That constituted violations of the NCAA's rules against improper benefits and preferential treatment, which say that any athlete that accepts compensation loses his or her status as an amateur.
Despite the fact that the NCAA was investigating the athlete, Georgia Tech's athletics department allowed him to play. The department, according to the report, had enough information to know that the athlete's status was seriously in question. Dan Radakovich, director of Georgia Tech's athletics department, said that it wasn't entirely clear, at the time, where the gift came from; the student claimed that the clothing was a gift from his cousin (which would not have amounted to preferential treatment), although the NCAA concluded that this was not true.
The report also alleges that staff members violated NCAA rules by giving the athlete details of the investigation before NCAA investigators interviewed him. According to the report, Radakovich told the head football coach, Paul Johnson, about the investigation -- itself a violation of NCAA rules -- and they had a closed-door meeting with the player to tell him about the investigation, which constituted another violation.
The report said many of the university's staffers were confrontational, and that the university's general counsel at the time "adopted an obstructionist approach" to the investigation. It is uncommon for senior university officials, like an institution's chief lawyer, to be implicated in NCAA violations.
Dennis Thomas, chair of the Division I Committee on Infractions, said that the university's refusal to cooperate was serious because the NCAA lacks the power to subpoena institutions. Investigations rely on good-faith efforts to cooperate with the NCAA staff, he said.
"When you don't cooperate, it really jeopardizes the whole process," Thomas said during a telephone news conference Thursday afternoon.
Thomas added that the NCAA will not impose extensive penalties on the individuals involved in the case because the violations represented "a total institutional process." Johnson, the head football coach, will be forced to attend a conference on NCAA rules next year.
Georgia Tech's president, G.P. (Bud) Peterson, released a statement shortly after the NCAA news conference saying he believes the university took appropriate measures to cooperate with the NCAA, and it is considering appealing the NCAA decision. According to the statement, the university has instituted new training programs for staff and athletes to help familiarize them with NCAA rules since the 2009 investigation.
In a university press conference held just an hour later, Radakovich, the athletics director, said he had told Johnson about the investigation not knowing that it was a violation of NCAA policy to do so. In his previous interactions with NCAA investigators, he said, coaches and players were "deeply involved" in the process.
"At no point was it my intention, or the intention of anyone in the organization, to influence testimony," Radakovich said.
Under the penalties in the case, Georgia Tech's football team will vacate its 2009 ACC conference championship victory and serve a four-year probation, the university will pay a $100,000 fine, and the men's basketball team will face recruiting restrictions for several recruiting violations.
This is the university's second stint on probation in a decade -- the NCAA imposed a two-year probation in 2005, after an investigation found that Georgia Tech had allowed 17 academically ineligible athletes to continue playing. The NCAA also had a major infractions case there in 1989.