The NCAA is so toothless a smoking gun isn’t even enough

In recent months, a parade of NCAA executives, conference commissioners and famous football coaches have traveled to Washington to lobby Congress in search of new federal laws and regulations to oversee college athletics.

Their main concern is how the use of name, image and likeness (NIL) money can influence the recruitment and retention of athletes. They claim they need “guardrails.” They need “guidance.” They need a universal standard that they can enforce.

During the same period, the NCAAs current system of “justice” deliberated a wide-ranging case (the final document was 118 pages long) of old school cheating allegations — namely paying athletes under the table — involving LSU football and basketball.

It released its findings last week and mostly let the Tigers skate.

For example, the NCAA’s system didn’t hit LSU football with a postseason ban this year because it was very impressed with the school’s decision to ban itself from playing in a bowl during the 2020 COVID season. That self-imposed penalty, the report asserted, “reflects an institution that conducted an honest assessment of the nature and severity of the violations to hold itself accountable.”

Not mentioned was the fact LSU football was 3-5 when this vaunted ban was announced and there was little chance it would “miss out” on anything more than some minor bowl game.

Or that in the case of former basketball coach Will Wade, the NCAA process couldn’t conclude that Wade was actually discussing a “strong ass offer” of cash to a recruiting middleman in an effort to land a player, even though the conversation was caught on a FBI wiretap. That’s because the FBI wouldn’t share the tape and, as such, it had to rely on a Yahoo Sports transcript of the call.

“Simply put, the information in one news article in and of itself is not persuasive and credible,” the ruling read.

OK. No problem. The story of the transcript wasn’t intended to be part of some investigative process. Of course, the audio of the wiretap was also played — for anyone to hear — on HBO in the 2020 documentary “The Scheme.”

Apparently no one at the NCAA has HBO.

“I went to him with a strong-ass offer about a month ago,” Wade said on the tape of a deal with the recruiting middleman. “[Expletive] strong. Now, the problem was, I know why he didn’t take it now. It was tilted toward the family a little bit. But I mean, it was a [expletive] hell of an offer. Like, a hell of an offer.”

TAMPA, FLORIDA - MARCH 10: Will Wade the head coach of the LSU Tigers against the Missouri Tigers during the second round of the 2022 SEC Men's Basketball Tournament at Amalie Arena on March 10, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
LSU fired Will Wade after the 2022 season. One year to the day after LSU let him go, Was was hired as head coach at McNeese State. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

When the transcript was first reported in 2019, Wade refused to offer an explanation or even meet with LSU administrators. The school suspended him for 37 days.

However, in front of the NCAA, Wade and others advanced a defense that the “strong ass offer” wasn’t actually about money, but a chance for the middleman to join the LSU coaching staff.

The NCAA committee somehow bought this and cleared Wade of the charge. There was no explanation — or perhaps even contemplation — of why Wade, if he had a simple explanation that this was an innocent employment deal, didn’t mention it at the time and thus avoid a lengthy suspension in the first place.

If it was a job offer the whole time, common sense says he would have screamed it immediately and repeatedly. He didn’t, not once publicly.

Nor was there any explanation — or perhaps even contemplation — on how Wade would have “tilted toward the family a little bit” a job as an assistant coach. Was the recruit’s mom going to get hired also? How can you “tilt” a coaching job between two entities?

The entire explanation made zero sense, except apparently to the incredibly gullible (or purposely gullible) people the NCAA empowered to serve as the judge and jury on such cases.

That’s also fine. It’s the NCAA’s own system. This isn’t criminal behavior. Who really cares? If they want to accept ridiculous excuses, employ impossible standards to evidence or give credit for minimal internal punishment offers, hey, that is up to them.

Fans certainly don’t care, at least not in any tangible way like stop watching the games. If anything, these colorful cases are part of what makes college athletics fun.

“Strong ass offer” entering the lexicon was worth the entire thing.

Back to Washington, however.

How do the leaders of the NCAA think that an organization that is either unwilling or incapable of applying common sense rulings or appropriate punishment to long established violations based on overwhelming evidence — including FBI involvement — is even remotely capable (or willing in practice) to enforce even stricter rules and regulations on more nebulous NIL or roster tampering controversies?

The NCAA is very good at running national championships — from the Final Four to the College World Series. It’s good at serving as a clearinghouse for basic regulatory issues and establishing uniform rules of play in various sports.

However, it has no ability to investigate or enforce any rules, even the obvious ones. If “Strong Ass Offer” doesn’t do it, then nothing will. It’s almost impossible to get caught, let alone be significantly punished.

Which is why it needs to try something different. Deregulation, free markets and realistic plans for the future is better than begging Congress to create new laws based on old thinking.

After all, who is going to investigate them? Who is going to enforce them?

It’s like asking to lower the speed limit on a highway where no police ever patrol. It’s just window dressing — a public relations charade.

And yet the NCAA says it needs guardrails to save college athletics. But if it can’t even make a case on Will Wade when the FBI delivered him to them on a platter, what are more guardrails going to do?