Congress pushing to curb NCAA's investigative and punitive autonomy

A bipartisan group of Congress members wants to pass a federal law that will force the NCAA's investigation and punishment of member schools who break its rules.
Rep. David Kustoff (Republican from Tennessee) feels that the NCAA's enforcement process for violations is inefficient and unfair. Together with Josh Harder (D.Calif.), he introduced Tuesday's bill. It would establish a statute that limits NCAA violations, limit the time for which investigations can be completed by NCAA and allow schools to appeal any sanctions to a third party arbitrator.

Kustoff stated to ESPN that the NCAA was a monopoly without oversight. Kustoff stated that the NCAA is an investigator, prosecutor and judge. It also acts as a jury, jury, and executioner. Our bill creates a framework. "The NCAA can still perform their duties, but with additional constraints."

This proposal is intended to make the NCAA's process more like the criminal justice system. In an attempt to prevent punishing athletes for their misdeeds, the statute of limitations would allow the NCAA to prohibit a school from being punished for violations that occurred more than 2 years ago.

Schools will also be able to request a panel of three neutral arbitrators to examine and modify any punishments they feel are unfair. Although the NCAA allows for appeal in certain cases, the appeals process is managed by a majority of members schools.

The bill comes one day after a group consisting of 74 FBS-level athletic directors sent a letter to NCAA recommending that it make a number of changes to its enforcement process. The NCAA's newly formed enforcement arm was criticized for not being efficient in handling complex cases. The NCAA was also asked to make changes to reduce the perception that some investigators may be biased. It should also consider imposing punishments on specific "bad actors" rather than athletes who attended a school where there has been a violation.

Many college sports' top executives have been critical of the NCAA's enforcement process in recent months. Former congressman Tom McMillen now heads the Lead1 group of athletic directors. He said that their recommendations were the product of months of careful consideration.

McMillen stated that the process was collaborative with NCAA and wasn't meant to be adversarial. "The NCAA was also extremely helpful throughout the entire process."

Kustoff, who is a University of Memphis graduate and now represents the area where the school's location, said that he has been concerned for years about the "disproportionate treatment" of different member schools. After discovering that Dana Kirk, the Tigers' head coach, had given money to stars of the game, he was a Memphis student. The NCAA began to investigate his alma mater’s basketball team in 2019. This was due to the relationship between Penny Hardaway, the head coach, and James Wiseman, a freshman. Kustoff stated that he believes the most popular college teams like UNC and Duke often get a "slap on their wrists" for violating NCAA rules while other programs are subject to harsher penalties.

Memphis was among the first of a dozen major men's basketball programs to have their case routed through the newly-formed Complex Case Unit. Memphis, along with five other schools, is still waiting for a resolution 18 months after it received its case.

In August, the NCAA announced that it was revising its processes to improve efficiency. The association's spokesperson did not immediately respond Tuesday to questions regarding the proposed legislation.

The proposed law would allow the NCAA to investigate a school for any wrongdoing allegations within a maximum period of eight months. The association would have a maximum of one-year to conclude its investigation and issue any sanctions. The current NCAA rules do not provide for any time limits. Critics, such as Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner, claim that delay in penalizing schools that break NCAA rules has damaged the association's credibility.

Sankey told ESPN recently that these processes are too slow. "What we have done at almost every turn is to say, and I mean collectively -- that we must be aggressive and penalize. We need to have more severe penalties. It's all gone, we have completely forgotten about it. Time necessities are related to accountability."

The NCAA Accountability Act is one of several recent congressional proposals to reform college sports. The majority of legislation has been focused on creating federal rules to govern how college athletes can make money off their name, image, and likeness (NIL). Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, and others have requested Congress members to assist them in passing an NIL law. This request appears to have allowed many politicians to criticize the NCAA's power over an interstate multi-billion-dollar industry and to ask for other changes.

Kustoff stated that his bill was one of the necessary changes to the NCAA's business model. Kustoff stated that the possibility that the NCAA could soon begin to impose punishments based upon its vaguely defined NIL rules makes it even more important to reform its enforcement policies.

Kustoff stated that the bill was designed to address a fundamental problem with NCAA. This is its unrestrained power. It is one piece of the puzzle and Washington will play a part in its completion.

This report was contributed by ESPN's Mark Schlabach.