What The NCAA’s First NIL-Related Sanctions Tell Us About The Future

Last Updated on March 9, 2023

The NCAA has largely taken a position on the sidelines since the start of the NIL era in July of 2021, issuing only a few rounds of clarifications but taking no action against any institutions or athletes. That changed today with the first sanctions handed down to an institution for NIL-related recruiting violations as part of a negotiated resolution.

Miami women’s basketball—specifically the recruitment of NIL superstars Haley and Hanna Cavinder—was the subject of the investigation. At issue were an impermissible meal and an impermissible contact, brought to light by a tweet from Miami booster John Ruiz, who has previously committed to spending $10 million on NIL deals.

The NCAA interviewed Ruiz last June, but because of his robust involvement with NIL, no one knew exactly which transactions or partnerships might be at issue. There was Nijel Pack, a transfer from Kansas State who signed a two-year, $800 deal with Ruiz (whose contract was not part of this case), not to mention the more than 100 other student athletes signed to work with his LifeWallet and Cigarette Racing Team.

“I’m extremely comfortable with what we are doing. I have nothing to hide,” Ruiz told Sports Illustrated last June. “It went super well. The NCAA is trying to wrap their hands around this sudden change of environment. They’re trying to figure out how the landscape is working.”

Ruiz came out unscathed in terms of any repercussions in the Cavinder twins investigation. However, the Committee on Infractions seems to have gone out of its way to send a message to boosters by including a note—in bold type—with its decision aimed at addressing them:

Based on the specific facts developed during the investigation and the timing of the submission of the case to the Division I Committee on Infractions, the panel accepts the parties’ submission. The investigation did not develop any facts directly linking activities around name, image and likeness to the prospects’ recruitment to or decision to enroll at the University of Miami. During its review, however, the panel was troubled by the limited nature and severity of institutional penalties agreed-upon by Miami and the enforcement staff—namely, the absence of a disassociation of the involved booster. Further, this case was processed prior to the adoption of NCAA Bylaw 19.7.3, which went into effect on January 1, 2023, and presumes that a violation occurred in cases involving name, image and likeness offers, agreements and/or activities. Based on legislation in effect at the time of submission, the panel cannot presume that activities around name, image and likeness resulted in NCAA violations.

Although the parties asserted that a disassociation penalty would be inappropriate based on an impermissible meal and an impermissible contact, today’s new NIL-related environment represents a new day. Boosters are involved with prospects and student-athletes in ways the NCAA membership has never seen or encountered. In that way, addressing impermissible booster conduct is critical, and the disassociation penalty presents an effective penalty available to the COI.

Considering the facts and circumstances in this case, however, the panel did not determine that the absence of a disassociation rendered the penalties manifestly unreasonable or the agreement to be against the best interests of the Association. Pursuant to Bylaw 19.10.6, this approved agreement has no precedential value. The COI will strongly consider disassociation penalties in future cases involving NIL-adjacent conduct.

“We didn’t want to put a green light on (that behavior),” COI chair Dave Roberts told The Athletic. The message was in bold type intentionally.

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

The COI might have taken a stronger stance on Ruiz in this case, but it was a negotiated resolution, which meant the proposed resolution came to the COI already negotiated between enforcement staff and the institution. While the COI could have sent it back, that only happens in rare cases.

Ruiz tweeted his opinion later in the day following the announcement of the sanctions.

Sports Illustrated reported Ruiz also said he would have sued the NCAA had their decision attempted to include him in the sanctions.

“Had it personally impacted on me or my company, I would have sued the NCAA, and they would have had a big battle.”

Mit Winter, a sports attorney and NIL expert, says the decision released is notable and sends a message to both institutions and boosters.

“The decision is notable because of the note the COI included with the decision about future booster disassociation penalties,” said Winter. “Although Ruiz wasn’t disassociated in this case, the COI sent a message to other boosters and collectives that it will strongly consider disassociation penalties in future NIL-related cases. It remains to be seen if this will have a chilling effect on interactions between collectives and recruits, but, in combination with the new NIL rules charging standard, I’m sure it will lead to schools having conversations with collectives about the importance of adhering to the NCAA’s NIL policy.”

What if the situation involved a collective instead of a single booster? Then who would be disassociated?

 “I think the entire collective would be disassociated as an entity since the NCAA has clearly stated collectives are considered boosters,” said Winter. “The owners or operators of the collective would probably also be disassociated. If not, they could easily create a new entity to get around the disassociation of the collective.”

Miami women’s basketball head coach Katie Meier did not fare as well as Ruiz. She was found to have violated “head-coach responsibility” because of text messages between her and Ruiz discussing the recruitment of the Cavinder twins and arranging the dinner at issue.

Meier will serve a three-game suspension, but the NCAA was consistent with its previous messaging about not penalizing athletes and did not issue any penalties against the Cavinder twins. The women’s basketball program, however, was issued several financial and recruiting sanctions:

  • One year of probation
  • $5,000 fine plus 1% of the women’s basketball budget
  • 7% reduction in the number of official visits allowed during the 2022–23 academic year
  • A reduction of nine recruiting days in 2022–23
  • A three-week probation on recruiting communications by staff members, which begins when the transfer portal opens on March 13

Winter says the decision is notable for at least two reasons beyond the COI’s note it included with the decision about future booster disassociation penalties.

“One, it’s the first NIL-related decision to come from the COI and shows that, contrary to popular belief, the NCAA enforcement staff has been active in investigating and enforcing the current NIL policy. Second, the decision involves impermissible contacts between a booster and recruits. As anyone who pays attention to the NIL space knows, there are regular reports of these types of contacts happening between collectives and boosters. The COI and the enforcement staff have put everyone on notice that they are policing those types of activities.”

It also seems like harsher penalties could be coming in future cases due to changes that went into effect in January of this year. Instead of needing an on-record source to presume an NCAA rule has been violated, investigators can now use circumstantial evidence like an anonymous tip or news story. The new rules will make it easier for the NCAA investigators to charge a school with a violation and essentially put the burden on the institution to prove the allegation didn’t happen.

This piece originally appeared on Forbes

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