Georgia Tech charges NCAA penalties are ‘unfair’ and ‘unprecedented’

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner was born Sept. 26, 1977, in Glen Dale, West Virginia. Pastner grew up in Kingswood, Texas, and graduated from the University of Arizona. Pastner was introduced as Tech's men's basketball coach April 8, 2016. Tech won 21 games in Pastner's first season, which ended with a loss in the NIT final. The Yellow Jackets slipped to a 13-19 record in Pastner’s second season. In Pastner's first two seasons at Tech, the Jackets were 14-24 in ACC games, including the ACC tournament. Tec

In its appeal of NCAA sanctions for basketball recruiting violations, Georgia Tech strongly contended that penalties imposed were unfair, arbitrary and did not properly consider NCAA regulations. History suggests that Tech’s chances to win the appeal are not great, but the language in a Tech news release issued Friday indicates that the school has prepared a vigorous challenge.

“As I stated when we received the decision from the Committee on Infractions in September, it is our strong belief that the severity of the penalties imposed has a direct and unfair impact on current student-athletes,” Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury said in a statement. “As our legal team prepared our appeal, it also became clear that the application of the penalties was unprecedented.”

Friday was the deadline for Tech’s initial submission to the infractions appeals committee after notifying the NCAA of its intent to appeal on Oct. 11, contending that the sanctions committee had abused its discretion.

Tech is appealing three of the penalties assessed by the NCAA infractions committee for unrelated recruiting violations committed by former assistant coach Darryl LaBarrie and Ron Bell, a former friend of Pastner’s whom the NCAA classified as a booster – a one-year postseason ban, an annual reduction of one scholarship for four years and a two-year ban on official visits in conjunction with home basketball games.

The penalties are not in effect for the duration of the appeal, meaning that Tech could go to the postseason (or have official visits scheduled with home games) if the appeal is not concluded before the end of the season. The length of previous appeals indicates that the appeal won’t end before the conclusion of the regular season.

In its news release, Tech asserted that the penalties were “based in significant part on an improper aggravating factor,” that the length of the scholarship reduction was arbitrary and that the infractions committee “did not properly consider NCAA regulations in imposing” the official-visit restrictions.

The first contention regarding the “improper aggravating factor” delves into the intricacies of the NCAA manual and would appear critical in Tech’s hopes to win its appeal, particularly for the postseason ban.

There are four levels of NCAA violations, I-IV, with Level-I violations described as “severe breaches of conduct.” Created in 2013, the violation structure is paired with guidelines for core penalties, including recruiting restrictions, postseason bans and scholarship reductions.

Within Level-I violations, penalty guidelines are further divided into three categories – aggravation, standard and mitigation. In Tech’s response to the NCAA’s notice of allegations, obtained by the AJC through an open-records request, Tech officials asserted its belief that the case could be classified as Level I-mitigated, but the NCAA ultimately classified the violations as Level I-standard.

That matters because of the contents of page 366 of the 2019-20 Division I manual, a chart on penalty guidelines. For Level-I mitigation violations, the guideline for postseason bans is 0-1 years. For Level-I standard violations, it’s 1-2 years.

The NCAA’s report on Tech’s violations stated that the infractions committed applied “significant weight” to one particular factor for establishing the violations as Level-I standard and not Level-I mitigation – “a history of Level I, Level II or major violations by the institution.”

In its response to allegations, filed in May, Tech acknowledged the history of major violations – in 1989, 2005, 2011 and 2014 – was an aggravating factor, but asserted that it “should be given minimal weight. While Georgia Tech has had three cases within the past 15 years, with its last case processed five years ago, those cases have virtually nothing in common with the allegations contained in this case.”

The 2005 case regarded Tech inadvertently playing 17 athletes in four sports who were academically ineligible. The 2011 case stemmed from impermissible benefits granted to former football star Demaryius Thomas. The 2014 case dealt with impermissible phone calls and text messages sent by Tech coaches, many of which were made by coaches who were said to have mistakenly assumed that they were acting within NCAA rules.

However, the infractions committee noted that basketball coaches were among those making the impermissible calls and that, as the NCAA investigated Thomas, it also uncovered impermissible tryouts in the men’s basketball team.

From the report: “Taken together, these cases show a pattern of compliance issues at Georgia Tech with specific issues that continue to arise within the men's basketball program.”

Regarding the scholarship reduction, the manual advises that limitations on financial aid can be made “during a specified period” but does not offer more guidance on duration. The length of the scholarship reduction matches the length of Tech’s probation.

The NCAA’s bylaw regarding recruiting restrictions “may include limitations for varying lengths of time” on a number of elements, such as official visits, communication and off-campus recruiting, but does not address more specific limitations such as the one the sanctions committee instituted with its ban on official visits timed with home basketball games. (Sanctions can depart from standard penalties “if extenuating circumstances are found” and an explanation is made.)

The sanctions committee explained that it banned official visits in conjunction with home games because the November 2016 visit in which eventual Duke star Wendell Carter was taken to a strip club was scheduled around a home game, although it was an exhibition game.

With the submission from Tech on Friday, the sanctions committee now has 30 days to file a response, after which are three more responses totaling a maximum span of 34 days. The next stages – oral arguments and the release of the report – can take between 2-1/2 months to four months, according to NCAA benchmarks.

The average appeal takes eight months, according to the NCAA. In 2017 and 2018, there were 19 violations appealed, three of which were vacated.