NCAA makes it easy for Miami in first decision in NIL case – but warns boosters it’s not a ‘green light’

Three large blocks of bold and italicized text greet you on the pages of the NCAA’s decision in the infringement case involving recruiting violations surrounding Miami’s women’s basketball program.

Yes, the NCAA found violations, headlined by the winningest head coach in program history (Katie Meier) facilitating unauthorized contact between two future athletes (Fresno State transfers Haley and Hanna Cavinder) and a known Hurricanes booster (John Ruiz).

The sentences are quite light: a probationary period of one year. Tens of thousands of dollars. A handful of lost official visits and a few lost personal recruiting days.

But the case was resolved without sanctions for the players involved. And no penalties either for the deep-pocketed booster who met those players before finally committing to the Hurricanes.

The latter is what fans and administrators alike will focus on as they read the news of the Division I Committee on Infractions’ first NIL-adjacent decision to be resolved since relaxed NIL rules ushered in a new era of college sports. Many will feel that the light punishment will be little more than a slap on the wrist.

This forced the Committee on Infractions to include the bold and italicized passage. The three-person COI panel accepted the negotiated resolution that led to the above sanctions, but also noted the following:

The panel was concerned about the limited nature and severity of the institutional penalties agreed upon by Miami and enforcement personnel, namely the lack of dissociation from the implicated driver. Further, this matter was adjudicated prior to the passing of NCAA Bylaw 19.7.3, which went into effect January 1, 2023, and is believed to have committed a violation in cases involving name, image and likeness offers, agreements and /or activities. Based on the laws in effect at the time of filing, the panel cannot assume that name, image, and likeness activities resulted in NCAA violations.

While the parties argued that a dissociation sentence would be inappropriate on the basis of impermissible meal and contact, today’s new NIL-related environment represents a new day. Boosters engage with prospects and student-athletes in ways NCAA membership has never seen or experienced. In that way, it is critical to address inadmissible driver behavior, and the dissociation punishment is an effective punishment available to the COI.

“We didn’t want to greenlight (that behavior),” COI president Dave Roberts, USC’s special assistant to the athletic director, told me. The athletic.

But wait. Does this decision not mean a green light? If the booster is not punished? If the players remain eligible? If the NCAA couldn’t prove that NIL was a hiring incentive?

“Not with that headline on it,” Roberts said.

“Not with that headline,” echoed University of Akron president Gary Miller, who chaired the panel.

“I think that’s a pretty good stop sign,” Roberts said. “You better think before you act.”

That was the intent behind the bold typeface, Miller said. This decision was necessary because everyone in the room could predict what others would think when they read it.

The COI members believe in the message they are trying to send for two reasons. The first: the new “NIL presumption” regulation introduced this year is designed to shift the burden of proof from NCAA enforcement personnel (who previously had to prove that a violation had occurred) to the member school charged with breaking rules (who will now have to prove that no violation has occurred). The second reason: The COI didn’t really have a chance to make an example of John Ruiz, the superintendent in the Miami women’s basketball case. Since it was a negotiated resolution, the decision essentially came pre-packaged to the COI. The school, coach and enforcers already agreed on facts related to the violations and associated penalties.

Although the COI approved the negotiated resolution — the committee has approved all but three of them that have come across its desk in recent years — “it’s not a rubber stamp,” Roberts said. The panel overseeing the decision can reject a negotiated resolution agreement only if the decision is not in the best interest of the NCAA membership or if the penalties are “manifestly unreasonable.”

“We have the option to send the case back to enforcement and the parties and tell them to be charged again, but it’s very rare that we do that,” Roberts said.

In the Miami case, the panel did send a letter back to the parties involved to get more clarity. Roberts said the country information is supposed to adhere to the agreement of the parties and cited a recommendation from the Division I Transformation Committee that suggested contested hearings be used only for the most serious offences.

Still, the COI didn’t want to tell the rest of Division I that boosters are free to roam and do whatever they want, so the group is trying to show a willingness to punish breaking NIL rules by dissociating boosters – even though this case came discussed shortly before that result.

“We wanted to make sure this decision wasn’t saying, ‘We’ve got a big exception here. Collectives can go ahead and do things like this,” Roberts said. “We’re not telling you we’re going to hit (someone), but don’t take this as a precedent that it will never happen.”

A negotiated resolution may not actually set a precedent, but administrators on campuses across the country will use this decision to inform behavior. Will it deter bad actors? Without a severe punishment for those involved in this case, such a change in behavior seems unlikely.

That is why the COI focuses on the future. The “NIL Suspicion” regulation would represent a significant shift in the process that could lead to NCAA enforcement personnel picking up more cases and getting the information they need.

“It’s a very interesting change,” Roberts said. “Behavior that was theoretically an inducement was the burden of enforcement. And now it essentially becomes the burden of the defendant – to say, ‘Hey, I didn’t do it.’”

Link the new NIL conjecture to updated NIL guidelines passed last year by the DI Board of Directors that outline what is and what is not allowed for schools and/or boosters, particularly with regard to prospective athletes, and the parallel tracks should complement each other. The new standards should finally give schools what their own leaders have been calling for for the past 18 months: rules and their subsequent enforcement. At least in theory.

“What this NIL thing has done is introduce a very different sphere of potential behavior that we’re concerned about,” Miller said. “Since this (Miami) case came out before that assumption, we want to make sure that the members and the athletic departments and boosters are aware that there is and will continue to be concern about the behavior of boosters in the NIL space.

“That’s something new under the sun.”

It didn’t seem right, Miller said, to go to scorched earth on Miami or Ruiz based on the documented illicit contact between Meier and Ruiz, and the Cavinder twins’ dinner at Ruiz’s home prior to their official visit. Under a new standard, the resolution might look different than it did on Friday afternoon. Maybe it will end up in the same place.

If nothing else, it’s clear that, for the purposes of the NCAA, the next shoe to drop has to be a big one. Otherwise, collectives collectively shrug their shoulders and continue to push boundaries. Boosters will decide whether the rewards of recruits or transfers outweigh the risks before they are enrolled. Chaos will continue to rule unregulated space.

Or maybe Friday’s stop sign shall eventually lead to a groundbreaking case of misdemeanor that punishes bad actors and deters bad behavior – one day, one way or another. And it doesn’t need a special headline to get its point across.

(Photo: Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

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