Bobby Petrino, P.J Hairston and The Inequality of Telling Lies in College Sports

Never tell a lie. Good advice, when you think about it. If only it was that simple. College sports is a breeding ground for lies. There are just too many inconvenient truths in NCAA sports, starting with amateurism, the NCAA’s most core principle. So much for leading by example, but that is another story.

I am interested in how the NCAA views different types of lies and what that says about the organization.

The NCAA wants people associated with college athletics to play by its rules and to not tolerate cheating. And if accused of NCAA wrongdoing, they want schools and individuals to cooperate. Wonderful. The NCAA even spells its “Cooperative Principle,” which encourages cooperation and says that it is a “mitigating factor in Level I and Level II infractions cases.”

And how does a school cooperate? Typically by admitting guilt (“Fill in the blank went rogue”), then claiming that corrective action has been taken (Fire or suspend NCAA violator, typically low-level scapegoats like athletes and assistant coaches) and exhibiting leadership (Thump chest and pledge allegiance to the NCAA).

NCAA investigators encourage student-athletes and others to fess up and even sell the supposed benefits of coming clean. Yet there is no evidence that those who admit guilt get lesser penalties. In fact, the role model for not cooperating might be Johnny Manziel. He got a lawyer and didn’t give an inch. The result: They NCAA could not prove Manziel accepted cash for autographs and ultimately slapped him with a one-half game suspension.

In fact, I would suggest the opposite: The NCAA is so desperate to catch wrongdoers that when it obtains what they believe is incriminating evidence, the athletes or coaches are treated very harshly.

Let’s examine Louisville’s new coach Bobby Petrino, the lying (just not in the NCAA sense) and cheating (in the Biblical sense) who somehow parlayed his bad deeds into an even more lucrative deal than he had at Arkansas. Having a mistress is wrong, but certainly not a crime or even an NCAA violation. His first major ethical failing: Putting his mistress on the Arkansas payroll over other, more qualified job candidates and then not disclosing his relationship. His next ethical failing: Lying to his athletic director about the facts surrounding his motorcycle crash, including that he was accompanied by his mistress.

Petrino’s actions were sufficient to get him fired by Arkansas. But Petrino did nothing to jeopardize his standing with the NCAA. Therefore, no NCAA “show cause” penalty, a death sentence for college coaches. For Petrino, he committed the perfect indiscretion for an NCAA coach: He cheated and lied, but he did not engage in anything specifically forbidden by the NCAA Manual.

All this reminds me of the late, great Abe Lemons who recognized the limits of rules: “If I make a set of rules, then a guy goes out and steals a car. He comes back and says, ‘It wasn’t on the list of rules.’”

It is hard to be mad at those who skate by in this bizarre system. But, then you think of some of the good guys who pay the ultimate price. Like Kelvin Sampson who was unceremoniously fired at Indiana for making excessive phone calls to recruits. He also was hit with a five-year “show cause” penalty, which effectively made him unhirable as a college coach.

Then there was Rick Neuheisel, Dez Bryant, Bruce Pearl, who all initially lied to NCAA investigators. And, most recently, University of North Carolina basketball player P.J. Hairston, whose college career was recently ended when his school decided not to go to bat on his behalf.

Hairston’s case provides fascinating clues about how the NCAA operates and its priorities.

North Carolina, in consultation with the NCAA, ended P.J. Hairston’s college career. North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham said in a statement: “Unfortunately P.J. made a number of mistakes that placed his eligibility at risk and the university’s joint review with the NCAA made it clear that seeking reinstatement for P.J. would not be possible.”

Note that only North Carolina can trigger an appeal, not Hairston. Why? Because in the NCAA governance structure, student-athletes have no legal power. They are not members. They do not get a vote. They do get to negotiate terms of their scholarships, transferring, declaring for the draft, termination of scholarships, etc. And student-athletes are prevented from directly participating in their own NCAA dust ups. Instead, they must rely on NCAA members to fight on their behalf. An NCAA athlete cannot say, “Hey, I want to appeal my case before an independent body.” It doesn’t work that way.

As Jay Bilas put it…

We just have to trust that the “join review with the NCAA” was fair, unbiased and properly judged Hairston’s actions. Or you can be skeptical like me. We know there were many lawyers representing the NCAA and UNC who examined Hairston’s case. You know who was not represented in this joint review? Hairston.

According to CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish, “multiple sources have told CBSSports.com that Hairston wasn’t forthcoming…” In other words, Hairston lied.

Now, rewind the enforcement process against Hairston. What if before he speaks to NCAA officials regarding his allegations, he consults with a lawyer or someone expert in NCAA rules and procedures? Surely, with the help of a qualified expert, they would develop a sound strategy to defend against these allegations. Would Hairston have gotten caught in the same lie? We will never know.

Unfortunately, the NCAA does not have a legal duty to provide athletes with “due process under law.” That is why it is even more important for athletes who stand accused of NCAA wrongdoing to provide their own, well-executed defense. It would also help if athletes were not at the mercy of a process that is inherently unfair and tilted in favor of the NCAA and member schools.

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Marc Isenberg

Marc Isenberg

Nationally-recognized athlete advocate for high school, college and pro athletes. A national columnist for Basketball Times, Marc is a frequent speaker at elite basketball camps and athletic programs and teams, including UCLA, RbkU and the Orlando Magic. In 2012, Marc, with Nolan Smith of the Portland Trail Blazers, founded Hoops Family , an organization devoted to educating and mentoring basketball players—and advocating on their behalf.