A recent news report detailed alleged large-scale corruption throughout men’s college basketball. In the report, dozens of student-athletes allegedly received impermissible payments for their commitments to enroll at various Division I universities or payments while they were attending those universities. Last October, 10 individuals, including four NCAA Division I men’s basketball coaches, were charged for their role in an alleged bribery scheme by the U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District of New York. What do these all of these developments mean for the head coaches under NCAA rules?

NCAA Bylaw 11.1.1, “Head Coach Responsibility,” imposes a presumption of head coach accountability for impermissible acts committed by assistant coaches and administrators within their program.

NCAA enforcement’s emphasis in charging Head Coach Responsibility violations is evident, as 13 violations were alleged against coaches in 2017.

Bylaw 11.1.1 states:

“[A]n institution’s head coach is presumed to be responsible for the actions of all assistant coaches and administrators 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.”

The penalties associated with Head Coach Responsibility violations are severe.

Under Bylaw 11.1.1.1, a head coach can be suspended for up to an entire season for Level I violations and up to half a season for Level II violations. The length of the suspension depends on “the severity of the violation(s) committed by his or her staff and/or the coach himself/herself.”

Plausible deniability is a poor strategy to rebut Head Coach Responsibility allegations. The “I didn’t know it was going on” excuse will do little to rebut the presumption of accountability. Instead, head coaches must rely upon a three-prong strategy: A demonstration that the coach adequately monitored the activities of employees under their supervision, actively engaged in rules education activities with employees under their supervision, and actively communicated compliance concerns and reported information that could constitute a NCAA compliance issue.

The NCAA Appeals Committee has  identified specific factors that, if shown by the head coach as part of his efforts to rebut the presumption, can provide an effective defense, and insulation from discipline, to the coach’s alleged failure to create an atmosphere of compliance.

Examples of these factors include:

  • Shared responsibility of compliance with the program and compliance staff, establishment of clear expectations for reporting actual and potential violations, and independent inquiry by compliance staff into issues or potential issues;
  • Evidence of understanding within the program that ultimate responsibility rests with the head coach and violations by staff will result in punishment for the head coach;
  • Written policies for issues involving elite athletes;
  • Active participation by the head coach in uncovering compliance problems and evaluating evidence of potential violations;
  • Actively soliciting feedback to determine if compliance systems are functioning properly;
  • Avoiding conflicts between program success and compliance efforts;
  • Timely personal initiative by the head coach for any violations or potential violations, including staff conversations about future and current student-athletes;
  • Whistleblower protection for staffers who report violations or potential violations;
  • Written evidence of consistent continuing education of all persons in the program as to compliance rules; and
  • Regular consultation with compliance staff, and asking before acting in ambiguous situations. The guidelines set out the following steps: First, enforcement will consider factors related to the coaches’ education, monitoring, and communication efforts in deciding whether an 11.1.1 violation exists, and the severity of the violation. Second, the head coach will have the opportunity to present information to the Committee on Infractions panel demonstrating that the coach satisfied these three areas of obligations. Finally, the Committee on Infractions Hearing Panel will consider NCAA enforcement’s allegation and the coach’s rebuttal in making its determination as to whether Bylaw 11.1.1 was violated and what the appropriate classification of the penalty should be.

On February 13, NCAA enforcement released guidelines clarifying that enforcement’s decision calculus to alleged Head Coach Responsibility violations is made on a “case-by-case” basis.

The guidelines set out the following steps:

First, enforcement will consider factors related to the coaches’ education, monitoring, and communication efforts in deciding whether an 11.1.1 violation exists, and the severity of the violation.

Second, the head coach will have the opportunity to present information to the Committee on Infractions panel demonstrating that the coach satisfied these three areas of obligations.

Finally, the Committee on Infractions Hearing Panel will consider NCAA enforcement’s allegation and the coach’s rebuttal in making its determination as to whether Bylaw 11.1.1 was violated and what the appropriate classification of the penalty should be.

Takeaway: Head coaches will need to commit significant time to not only engaging in the three areas of presumption rebuttal, but also documenting and filing those efforts. It is strongly encouraged that all Division I Head Coaches begin to coordinate the creation of a filing system documenting their efforts, if they have not already