In a new one for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, it will investigate itself, after uncovering “a very severe issue of improper conduct” within its enforcement division, NCAA President Mark Emmert said in an impromptu and unexpected announcement  Wednesday afternoon.
The procedural breach occurred during the NCAA’s high-profile investigation of the University of Miami, where the athletics booster Nevin Shapiro allegedly violated NCAA rules by giving cash and gifts to athletes and recruits. (Shapiro is now in prison for his role in a Ponzi scheme.)
What “appears to be the case,” Emmert said in a call with reporters Wednesday, is that the NCAA paid Shapiro’s lawyer to gather evidence for its investigation, using subpoenas and depositions through a bankruptcy proceeding.
The NCAA does not have subpoena power and thus lacks the authority to compel testimony under oath, Emmert said, meaning the Miami investigation turned up evidence that shouldn’t have been accessible. Further, whoever hired Shapiro’s lawyer apparently did not have clearance to do so, because Emmert said the decision did not go through the NCAA’s general counsel as procedure requires.
Reminding everyone of his own demands  of athletic programs to show integrity, Emmert expressed his disgust with the conduct of his own staff, two of whom are no longer employed there.
“I’ve certainly never seen anything like this, and I don’t want to see it again,” Emmert said, adding that the conduct was “deeply disturbing” and he felt “deeply disappointed and frustrated and even angry.”
These new developments could be good news for Miami, however, which was widely expected to face harsh punishment from the NCAA. Emmert said that whatever evidence was obtained through the lawyer (a “small portion” of all the evidence that’s been gathered, he said) will be thrown out, and the investigation of Miami will not be extended or redone. The investigation of the enforcement division, to be conducted by an external law firm, will apply to “the current issue” of the Miami case as well as the enforcement’s overall policies and practices The NCAA will not deliver Miami’s notice of allegations -- the document that contains its formal charges -- until after the law firm has completed its work, which Emmert hopes happens in one to two weeks.
Miami President Donna Shalala released a statement  following the announcement, calling the university “a model” for how institutions should cooperate with NCAA investigators.
“In addition to encouraging current and former staff members and student-athletes to cooperate with investigators, we have provided thousands of documents to the enforcement staff,” Shalala said. “I am frustrated, disappointed and concerned by President Emmert’s announcement today that the integrity of the investigation may have been compromised by NCAA staff.”
The role of the enforcement division is to gather evidence for NCAA investigations, which occur when the NCAA discovers rules violations at an athletics program (or they're pointed out by a news report or other source) and the association and college cannot agree on suitable sanctions. Enforcement hands off its findings to the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, which holds hearings with college representatives and then issues penalties, which could take the form of scholarship reductions, bowl bans, financial payments or vacation of wins, among other things.
The August 2011 Yahoo Sports investigation  that prompted the NCAA to look into Miami reported that from 2002-10, Shapiro provided more than 70 athletes with thousands of impermissible benefits, from prostitutes to jewelry to travel and even an abortion. In some cases, football and basketball coaches were aware of or participated in the activity, according to the allegations.
Reaction to the NCAA's announcement was swift and fierce. While some sportswriters did give the NCAA props for making the incident public and working to address it, the kind words went no further than that.
The ESPN and CBS Sports analyst Jay Bilas, who is also a lawyer and outspoken NCAA critic, called Emmert out for hypocrisy by pointing to the new enforcement structure , which holds coaches more accountable for violations. Bilas tweeted, “Isn’t NCAA making head coaches, those in charge, responsible for assistants’ actions? Uh, Mr. Emmert, about this happening on your watch…”
Here’s a selection of other relevant commentaries (longer than 140 characters) to hit the web Wednesday:
- Let the federal government take over the NCAA’s regulatory process, writes John Infante , NCAA expert for the athletic recruiting website Athnet and author of the Bylaw Blog: “There is really only one organization that can enforce the NCAA’s rules substantially better than the NCAA. There is also only one organization that can force institutions to go along with an expanded enforcement program. Luckily, it is the same organization: the federal government.”
- The overly rules-laden NCAA is its own worst enemy, writes Dana O’Neil of ESPN : “The enforcement staff is well-intended but overmatched and ineffective. Not because they don't care. Not because they are out to get anyone. They are good people. Smart people. Hard-working people. But in a highly sophisticated sports world, they are armed with the investigative tools of Inspector Clouseau.”
- The NCAA’s amateurism rules are a sham, the association’s administrators are corrupt and the Miami case should be dropped, writes Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports : “The simple solution is to allow boosters, businesses, alumni, fans -- heck, anyone at all -- to sponsor athletes. Let the free market play out…. At the end of the day it's a rich person sending money to a young – often poor – person. We are supposed to be outraged by this? This is how the country works, this is how the force of a capitalistic economy will always make it work. Only the NCAA thinks it can stop it.”
- Contract out the enforcement process, writes CBS Sports columnist Dennis Dodd , and let Miami off the hook: “The enforcement was flawed before. Now it's wrong, mean-spirited, perhaps in this case even flirting with breaking the law. Miami should be free to go, because the NCAA overseeing enforcement has to go.”
- Emmert’s down-in-the-dumps credibility took another big hit Wednesday, Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel says : “While Emmert has been busy patting himself on the back for pushing through recent reforms like stricter academic penalties and a more streamlined rulebook, two years of bizarre, or, in the Miami case, corrupt enforcement decisions have destroyed what little confidence the public still held in his organization.”