NCAA Announces Sanctions Following Investigation into Miami Basketball NIL Allegations

    March 02, 2023, 09:00 AM

    In late February, the NCAA announced that the Committee on Infractions (COI) found rule violations by the University of Miami women’s basketball program. Specifically, the COI ruled that the head coach facilitated improper recruiting conversations between recruits and a university booster in violation of recruiting rules, although the case also considered issues relevant to name, image, likeness (NIL). The decision marks one of the first guideposts about how the NCAA may exercise its authority in the new era of NIL.

    The investigation focused on Miami basketball players Haley and Hanna Cavinder, who recently transferred from Fresno State in 2022. As reported by various news sources, the NCAA found that head coach Katie Meier met with booster, John Ruiz, at a university event for donors and potential donors. Ultimately, the NCAA concluded that the Miami coaching staff impermissibly facilitated a dinner meeting between Ruiz and the Cavinder sisters as well as their agent at Ruiz’s home during a time that the student-athletes were transfer prospects for Miami. Reportedly, the NCAA was unable to conclude that NIL opportunities were discussed during this meeting despite the coaching staff’s knowledge that Ruiz was a prominent Miami-area businessman involved in NIL activities with other Miami student-athletes.

    The NCAA found that the coaching staff’s involvement in arranging the contact between a booster and a prospect which resulted in an in-person meeting violated recruiting rules. Similarly, because the meeting between Ruiz and the Cavinders included a meal, it violated improper inducement rules.

    Rather than a hearing, the matter was resolved through negotiated resolution reviewed by a three person COI panel which approved Level II-mitigated penalties for the university and head coach, including one year of probation, a three game coaching suspension, fine, and reductions on recruiting visits and communications during the 2022-2023 season.  

    Of important consequence for the future of NIL enforcement, there were no penalties for the student-athletes and no penalties or disassociation requirement for the involved booster. Although the negotiated resolution was approved, in addressing what are likely to be interpreted as light penalties, the COI panel included the following notable opening paragraph in its decision:

    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 NCAA’s apparently intends for this language to make universities, student-athletes, and boosters take NIL restrictions seriously, the decision risks undermining the NCAA’s authority and ability to police their own NIL rules. Out of the gate, the NCAA has approved sanctions that do not include any eligibility consequences, booster fines or dissociation, citing their inability to prove that NIL was used in this instance as a recruiting inducement.

    However, before concluding that the NCAA has rubber teeth as it pertains to NIL, careful consideration and interpretation of the COI’s introductory warning is necessary. Specifically, the reference to NCAA Bylaw 19.7.3 should caution against premature conclusions that the NCAA won’t take action against student-athletes or boosters in future cases. It is important to remember that Bylaw 19.7.3, recently effective for 2023, presumes that an NIL infraction has occurred based merely on circumstantial evidence that impermissible conduct occurred. Under the new standard – which was not applicable for the Miami investigation – when NCAA enforcement staff has lodged a formal allegation based merely on a presumption, “[t]he hearing panel shall conclude a violation occurred unless the institution or involved individual clearly demonstrates with credible and sufficient information that all communications and conduct surrounding the name, image and likeness activity complied with NCAA legislation.”

    So, while the relatively light sanctions in the Miami basketball case provide important insight about the future of NIL enforcement, the NCAA seems to be signaling that future cases under the new presumption bylaw could result more serious consequences for violators. Moving forward, the presumption standard may make it easier for NIL allegations to be brought and the shift in the burden of proof will create additional challenges in defending against alleged violations.