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March Madness and March Sadness – Postseason Bans End Season Prematurely for Seniors

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Dana Drew Shaw

Time to Queue up “One Shining Moment” and enjoy the wild and bumpy ride that is March Madness! For college basketball fans it is time to watch closely as brackets get busted and see if the right “5-12 seed” upset was selected.  Unpredictability is the defining characteristic of March Madness; however, for 2016 there are two predictions I can fully guarantee are going to happen:  there will be an upset and neither Louisville nor SMU will be crowned the champion of the 2016 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament since they are banned from postseason participation.

Louisville’s ban is self-imposed for alleged violations likely committed by its Men’s Basketball Program, while SMU’s ban is part of larger sanctions imposed on the school by the NCAA for multiple infractions attributable to its Men’s Basketball program. The forfeiture of postseason participation by Louisville and SMU is not unprecedented for violations of NCAA bylaws, but the exclusion comes in a year when each program has been a top 25 team.

Typically, punishment via a postseason ban is reserved for teams who are average at best, and are likely to have no impact in the post season (e.g., Syracuse University in 2015 and University of Missouri in 2016). When Louisville announced its self-imposed postseason ban, it was ranked 19th in the country and had a record of 18-4.  Louisville finished the season ranked 14th in the nation with an overall record of 23-8, and would have been slotted to receive a 3-5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. SMU started the season off with an 18 game winning streak, the longest streak in the nation at the time, and ended the season ranked 25th with an overall record of 25-5.

Although the punishment is similar, the factual circumstances resulting in punishment for each team is quite distinctive. In SMU’s case, punishment was implemented after a thorough NCAA investigation revealed multiple fractions violations. The underlying basis of SMU’s punishment was academic fraud committed on behalf of a former player. Additionally, Larry Brown was cited for a lack of head coach control for failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance, and was suspended for nine games. NCAA Bylaw 11.1.1.1 states, “An institution’s head coach is presumed to be responsible for the actions of all institutional staff members who report, directly or indirectly, to the head coach. An institution’s head coach shall promote an atmosphere of compliance within his or her program and shall monitor the activities of all institutional staff members involved with the program who report, directly or indirectly, to the coach.”

On the other hand, Louisville’s postseason ban was self-imposed, and not the product of sanctions from a finalized NCAA investigation.  An internal investigation conducted by Louisville revealed that Level I violations had likely been committed by the Men’s Basketball Program, and if Louisville is ultimately found guilty of Level I violations, it is reasonably likely the program will be subject to further sanctions, and Head Coach, Rick Pitino, will be cited for lack of head coach control as well. Louisville’s self-imposed ban has been widely criticized as self-serving and unfair to the current innocent student athletes.

Critics of the bans in both cases find the timing most concerning. Louisville announced its ban on February 5th, with only nine games remaining in the season. Likewise, the NCAA did not inform SMU of its postseason ban until after the fall academic semester began. The timing of the bans is significant because it deprived the seniors on each team the opportunity to transfer schools without having to sit out a year. NCAA bylaw 14.8.2.1 states the one year residence requirement for transfers may be waived on the recommendation of the Committee on Infractions for a student-athlete whose original team is excluded from postseason play for the remaining seasons of a student athlete’s eligibility. However, under this provision a student-athlete must transfer before the beginning of the academic semester. Both bans were announced after the deadline to transfer passed, effectively depriving senior players on each team the right afforded to them by the NCAA to have the opportunity to play in the postseason in their final collegiate season.

The fairness and efficacy of postseason bans is now a part of the national conversation relating to college basketball. Gary Parrish, a college basketball insider for CBSSports, believes postseason bans of all types, self-imposed or otherwise, should be prohibited once an academic semester begins, and if a postseason ban is announced during an academic semester it should be for the following season. Additionally, Greg Sankey, the current chair of the Committee on Infractions, in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis, acknowledged the concerns over the timing of postseason bans, and identified it as a possible point of consideration even though there is no current NCAA legislation pending on the issue. Furthermore, critics argue the postseason bans unfairly punish current student-athletes who are innocent, and  the punishment for violations occurring in the past should be borne by the school (fines), the program (restriction on recruiting and scholarship), and the head coach (docking pay).

Unfortunately, under the current NCAA system players on these teams are not granted the opportunity to challenge the postseason ban of their team as unfair or in violation of their due process rights. A player would have to institute a court action to effectively challenge a postseason ban, self-imposed or otherwise. Even then it would be unlikely a court would overturn the NCAA’s punishment due to the enforcement powers it is afforded over its member institutions. Many student-athletes in similar situations probably forgo challenging a post season ban in a court of law due to the low probability of obtaining a favorable ruling. Louisville seniors Trey Lewis and Damion Lee, who transferred to Louisville for their senior year partly for the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, will once again be watching March Madness from the comfort of their own homes.

For more information, please contact attorney Dana Shaw at dshaw@slk-law.com.  This article was co-authored by Dana Shaw and sports intern, Brett Schuelke.

 

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