The NCAA men’s basketball tournament begins in two weeks, just as a congressional investigation into recruiting practices at some of the most successful, best-known programs in the country is tipping off, too.
Talk about March Madness.
“As we look at the NCAA overall, there are obviously serious issues here,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman. “You’ve got the issue with abuse and now you’ve got this issue.”
Walden’s committee had already begun an investigation of the NCAA as part of a larger look at sexual abuse, triggered by the conviction of Dr. Larry Nassar for sexually abusing hundreds of young gymnasts. Nassar worked at Michigan State University and for USA Gymnastics.
In September, the committee asked the NCAA to brief it on what it called “the evolving college basketball bribery scandal.” The NCAA did provide the briefing.
The panel is now looking at the latest issue for the NCAA, an ongoing FBI investigation into high-level college basketball that led to 10 indictments against assistant coaches, shoe company executives and agents.
A congressional investigation can involve witnesses testifying under oath and in public, as well as fact-finding that could produce legislation.
Coaches were taking money from agents to influence players to retain those agents once the athletes joined the NBA. Shoe companies funneled money to players to get them to choose certain schools, according to the FBI.
In the latest development, players and members of their families at college basketball powerhouses Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State, Texas, USC and Alabama and others were provided with payments, loans and other benefits, according to documents obtained by Yahoo! News.
“It’s within our jurisdiction,” Walden said. “You just wonder what’s going on there. What’s going at some of these universities?”
NCAA President Mark Emmert said the allegations would amount to “systematic failures” and tabbed former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to lead a “Commission on College Basketball.”
“We must take decisive action. This is not a time for half-measures or incremental change,” Emmert said in October when the FBI announced its findings.
Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said he plans to ask Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to look into the matter as well. A longtime critic of the NCAA, Yarmuth said he would “love” to look into the organization, which yields “arbitrary and selective enforcement” of its own rules.
“Isn’t this something that Congress should be looking at? You have a major cultural and financial operation that’s in trouble,” said Yarmuth, who represents Louisville.
The University of Louisville fired its athletic director and coach after being implicated in the scandal. The school was also punished harshly by the NCAA, including vacating its 2013 national title, for a different scandal, one that involved paying prostitutes to entertain recruits.
Some members of Congress saw no need to pry into the basketball recruiting issue.
“The NCAA and colleges really need to police themselves,” said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, a former college baseball player and coach at Texas Christian University. “The NCAA needs to see how deep this is and if they have penalties or sanctions it needs to come from them.”
In January, the committee opened an investigation into sexual abuse in sports. It sent letters to USA Gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic Committee, Michigan State University, USA Swimming and USA Taekwondo, asking about their guidelines and policies for dealing with abuse.
“We tend to defer, and set guidelines, and let each of the institutional organizations set up their own ground rules, but we do have the authority to act if we feel it’s necessary,” Barton said.
Congress moved quickly to address sexual abuse and other types of misconduct of minor athletes after the Nassar episode became national news. The House and Senate earlier this month passed legislation strengthening penalties for not reporting abuse.
Congress has tried to get involved in NCAA issues in the past, including 2015’s unsuccessful attempt to pass a NCAA Accountability Act, which would have also created a presidential commission on intercollegiate athletics. Some of the changes proposed in that legislation, including multi-year scholarships and stipends to cover the cost of attendance, have been adopted by the NCAA.
While there are criminal charges involved at the coaching level, athletes are only in violation of NCAA rules for taking money, not in violation of any current federal laws.
McClatchy reporter Lesley Clark contributed to this report.