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The 23 steps of pretty much every NCAA investigation

Is your school being accused of breaking the rules? Here’s how the whole saga is likely to play out.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

NCAA investigations all have similar rhythms ... en route to wildly varying results. They’re gonna take a while, they’re going to be laborious, everyone’s gonna be mad, and then your school will receive a punishment that has nothing to do with the punishment received by other schools for the same violation.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you navigate from the first hint of allegation to the aftermath of the ruling.

1. Everyone says everyone else is giving players money or writing their homework or whatever.

This is ongoing at all times. Whether it’s actually happening at that particular location or not is irrelevant.

2. Some rule violation — or at least an allegation of one — occurs.

It could be a coach liking a recruit’s tweet during an NCAA-defined Limited Likes period, or it could be an international network of car dealerships systematically stuffing every pocket on the roster.

3. The alleged violation gets reported somehow.

One school turning another in will get quite juicy. Maybe a former player will get paid $37,000 by rival fans to narc on his alma mater.

But the much more common way NCAA violations come to light is schools self-reporting over fear of what will happen if they get outed by somebody else. This is followed by headlines like “Large school self-reports 317 minor violations, promises not to do it again” or “Small school self-reports forgetting to include cover letter on self-report, death penalty inbound.”

4. The NCAA’s investigation begins.

Sometimes the school runs its own investigation concurrent to the NCAA’s, because the more the merrier.

5. Message board investigations kick up in earnest.

A proper message board investigation starts with a post like this:

Meanwhile on Twitter, Russian bots circulate photos of three current players sitting on the hood of a luxury car.

6. Someone who’s not the NCAA winds up breaking the case open.

The organization doesn’t have subpoena power, and if you’re not a current coach or player, there’s no real mandate for you to talk to them.

These investigations can take an Al Capone route, in which investigators are looking for one thing, yet pin a school for something else entirely. Other times, blind luck can change the scope of an investigation, like Laremy Tunsil’s draft night admission that he’d taken money from coaches. (The NCAA wound up not even using that bit, because nothing matters.)

Also, a reporter might discover a massive NCAA case before the NCAA does.

7. The NCAA has to investigate its own investigation’s investigation.

Yeah, that happens.

8. Rival coaches use the specter of an NCAA doomsday to negatively recruit against the school in question.

“Are they even gonna have a team there in two years? I’m not saying no. I’m just saying we don’t know,” some coach might tell a teenager about Rival U in private.

In public, said coach will talk about “the thing” unfolding at “That School Up/Out/Down North/South/East/West.”

9. Time for existential arguments about the NCAA’s mission!

Despite the fact that it’s the 21st century and sensibilities have changed over time, some newspaper columnist will produce 650 words holding up the sanctity of amateurism.

Others will call for the abolition of the NCAA altogether, because the next regulatory body will certainly be different this time.

10. Should the school in question just face a wholesale cancellation of this sports team for a few years?

Rival fans and media members, along with national columnists, will absolutely call for a university’s future athletes to be damned for the sins of athletes who have already turned pro. In fact, these people have been calling for this since way back in Step 1.

11. Everyone becomes an expert on the specific rule in question.

“The actual intent of NCAA bylaw, subsection B is ...”

12. A school administrator decries the negative influence of sports on academia.

This goes back to the 1800s. [link]

Note whether said administrator was also complaining as admissions numbers swelled and donations rolled in while the team was good.

13. Several years pass.

We all forget everything that happened in the investigation. What investigation?

14. The NCAA sends the school a formal Notice of Allegations.

The current regime is now part of the story, since it’ll have to pay the price for what went down years earlier. The school has argued for a long time that this investigation only swept up non-revenue sports and/or previous coaching staffs and/or a rogue booster/tutor.

15. The school responds to the formal allegations.

The school has 90 days to respond, which means it’ll respond within 200.

The school agrees some former assistants it fired were bad apples and apologizes if they ever dressed up as high school students to take some recruits’ SATs for them. The school admits it could’ve done a few things better, but now has a robust commitment to compliance. The school self-imposes a wrist slap and pleads for NCAA mercy.

Schools might get really particular about what they choose to contest — like being cool with everything except the NCAA taking away old wins.

16. The NCAA responds to the school’s response.

We’re all lost in paperwork at this point, but maybe there’s some good humor involved — like a player on a rival team who’s become a central focus of an NCAA investigation using a Joker GIF to make fun of his opponents’ NCAA misfortune:

17. We have a ruling.

Maybe your school had hundreds of athletes getting As in fake classes for more than a decade, but you won’t get any NCAA sanctions.

Maybe a recruit only went hunting on a booster’s land, but you will.

Both of those are real.

18. Fans of rival schools celebrate.

Something like this is common:

19. An appeal. Sure.

The ruling of the appeal also takes forever. We all again forget any of this is happening.

20. The appeal is ruled upon.

Thank God the thing’s finally done.

21. The new coach complains about his inherited sanctions in every interview for the next four years.

We heard all about your hardships the first time, Coach.

22. No one associated with your team ever impermissibly benefits another student-athlete.


23. Despite the NCAA coming under relentless fire throughout the investigation, president Mark Emmert keeps his job.

Because none of this matters.