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Focused on the mission: Infractions during a pandemic

The world of NCAA enforcement and hearing operations has not stopped turning, or significantly slowed down, due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Investigations have had to be conducted virtually. The same applies to infractions hearings and appeals.

Still, NCAA Vice Presidents Jon Duncan (enforcement) and Naima Stevenson Starks (hearing operations) said this has not caused a serious disruption to the processes they oversee and is meant to protect compliant programs. Duncan and Stevenson Starks discussed the pandemic’s impact on the infractions process on last Friday’s episode of the Social Series with host Andy Katz.

“At the national level, across the Association or at least across the divisions, we want to make sure compliant schools are not disadvantaged by their commitment to compliance,” Duncan said.

Enforcement’s investigative work has changed significantly, going from mostly in-person investigations to virtual ones. In some ways, however, this shift has allowed for more efficiency.

“It’s helped a lot. We’d rather interact in person with member institutions, but from an investigative side, there’s a lot less travel, a lot less wasted time in airports, hotels,” Duncan said. “It’s been more efficient, and it actually may be part of the reason we were able to get through as many cases last year (as we did).”

In fact, enforcement submitted a record 36 cases to the three Committees on Infractions in 2020. These included 118 Level I, Level II or major allegations, also a record. Like every year, the enforcement staff also investigated other potential violations that were ultimately unsubstantiated and closed.

Duncan, whose staff presented this data in a session during the virtual 2021 NCAA Convention, emphasized that these numbers reflected more than just the virtual efficiency. They also show the level of cooperation from member schools “who also were struggling with the same challenges we were and nevertheless kept investigations moving,” Duncan said.

Stevenson Starks said a virtual landscape is nothing new for the peer-review infractions process, which includes the Committees on Infractions and Infractions Appeals Committees in all three divisions. Those committees consist of volunteers from member institutions and the public.

The three Committees on Infractions resolved a combined 28 cases in 2020, including 22 in Division I. Seven virtual hearings and oral arguments were held between March and December in order to keep cases moving forward safely.

“So a lot of what we were doing previous to that was remote anyway because we didn’t have them here physically in the national office with us,” Stevenson Starks said.

Duncan and Stevenson Starks also spoke to the status of Division I cases with connections to the Southern District of New York’s indictments in 2017 and why most have yet to be resolved.

For one, Stevenson Starks said it’s important to remember that enforcement could not begin investigating the cases until 2019 when the government concluded most of its related proceedings.

Once enforcement was able to start investigating those cases, timeline data don’t differ much from other cases. Infractions cases connected to the Southern District of New York’s indictments that finished the enforcement staff’s investigations phase took an average of 10.1 months. All other cases that completed their investigations within enforcement finished in 9.2 months.

“Many of the membership are concerned about the duration of those cases and length of time that they have taken, and we certainly understand that,” Duncan said, “but I can tell you that everybody’s working to get those cases resolved as quickly as possible.”

Some of these cases have ended up in the Independent Accountability Resolution Process, which was created for Division I in response to recommendations made by the Commission on College Basketball.

For a case to be accepted into this resolution path, a request must be made to refer the case from the peer-review process to the independent structure. This request can be made in three ways: from the enforcement staff, the Division I Committee on Infractions or the school itself. From there, the Infractions Referral Committee within the independent structure decides whether to accept the request. The Infractions Referral Committee is composed of the Division I Council chair and vice chair, and representatives from the Division I Committee on Infractions and Infractions Appeals Committee. It is chaired by an Independent Resolution Panel member.

Additionally, Stevenson Starks said COVID-19 has had an adverse impact on the timeline of certain cases. Whether it’s been furloughs on campus or the pandemic’s impact on individuals’  schedules, delays have occasionally occurred.

“That’s just a reality,” Stevenson Starks said. “That is something that has to be accommodated as we’re trying to get these cases to conclusion.”

Regardless of how the work’s being conducted, Duncan and Stevenson Starks said the focus remains the same: Fairness for all.

“At the end of the day, the process is designed to represent the interests of the entire Association,” Stevenson Starks said. “That’s the mission of the process, and that’s what our committee members and our panel members on the independent side are charged with doing, looking out for the interest of the entirety of the Association while providing a fair process to that one institution or those individuals that are appearing before them.”

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