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AP Exclusive: SEC’s Sankey refuses to step down in UNC case

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey has denied a request seeking his removal as head of the NCAA infractions panel handling North Carolina’s ongoing academic case because of a conflict of interest.

Sankey stated in an April 14 letter obtained by The Associated Press that the panel would “fairly decide this case.”

“The panel, including me, will hear and decide this case based on the case record and the membership’s bylaws,” Sankey wrote to all involved parties.

Elliot Abrams — a Raleigh attorney representing a retired office administrator charged with violations — had written the NCAA saying Sankey had a “personal, professional and institutional interest” in the outcome as SEC commissioner while comparing it to “refereeing a championship game between an (Atlantic Coast Conference) team and an SEC team.”

UNC faces five top-level charges, including lack of institutional control, in the multiyear probe centered on irregular courses in an academic department.

The case stalled in March after Abrams wrote the NCAA to say his client, Deborah Crowder, was willing to talk with investigators for the first time. Crowder, who graded many of the papers for problem classes, filed an affidavit defending the courses’ quality.

In his letter last week to the NCAA, Abrams said a third Notice of Allegations outlining revised charges against Crowder and UNC should be tossed out as the result of “inappropriate pressure from a conflicted hearing panel.” He also said an “arbitrary” April 14 deadline for Crowder’s interview wouldn’t allow adequate preparation for questions about years-old documents.

Sankey responded that Crowder’s interview should occur in coming weeks within the new schedule, adding: “There will be no further delays, and the case will be heard on this schedule.”

Sankey also referenced “misstatements of facts” in Abrams’ letters while reiterating investigation details must remain confidential.

“The NCAA claims that no appearance of a conflict of interest exists and that the hearing panel did not direct the enforcement staff to issue the third Notice of Allegations,” Abrams said in a statement to the AP. “Interestingly, the NCAA attempts to keep these assertions from public view, even though its letter is plainly a public record.

“These positions intensify our concerns that the NCAA does not feel bound by its bylaws and that this process is merely a show designed to reach a predetermined result. Nevertheless, Ms. Crowder looks forward to correcting the record by giving an interview in the next few weeks.”

The NCAA Committee on Infractions issued a statement Friday to the AP on Friday saying that “committee composition is appropriate.”

“Rules put in place and supported by our membership call for confidentiality in infractions cases and the continued leaks of partial and inaccurate information in this case are disappointing,” the committee stated.

In an email to the AP, UNC spokeswoman Joanne Peters said the school will make its case to the panel according to the NCAA’s schedule.

Sankey’s letter also details a new timetable of completion for the oft-delayed case. UNC must respond to the latest charges by May 16. The NCAA enforcement staff then has until July 17 for its own response. Sankey wrote that his panel will hear the case in August with “anticipated” dates of Aug. 16 and 17.

Rulings typically come weeks to months later.

The focus of the case is independent study-style courses misidentified as lecture classes that didn’t meet and required a research paper or two in UNC’s formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. They featured significant athlete enrollments and typically high grades.

The case is an offshoot of a 2010 probe into the football program. The NCAA reopened its investigation in summer 2014, filed charges in May 2015, revised them last April and again in December.

In his April 4 letter seeking Sankey’s removal, Abrams cited the “appearance of partiality” from an NCAA conflicts-of-interest bylaw. Abrams added Sankey could be a witness regarding an Auburn case featuring similarities while Sankey was an SEC associate commissioner. The NCAA investigated claims a sociology professor helped athletes stay eligible through independent studies in 2005 and 2006 but found no major violations.

Abrams later sought details of communication between the NCAA and former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein during Wainstein’s 2014 AFAM investigation. Crowder cooperated with that probe, which estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes across numerous sports accounting for roughly half the enrollments.

In his letter, Sankey responded that saying he “previously investigated (an SEC) institution on an academic matter” was inaccurate but didn’t address the Wainstein inquiry.

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

Brad Underwood pokes fun at his version of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’

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On Thursday afternoon, Brad Underwood, the new head coach of Illinois, was invited to Wrigley Field to throw out the first pitch and sing ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ during the seventh inning stretch.

While the ceremonial first pitch went well, his rendition of the ballpark classic did not go as smoothly.

Underwood was at least able to poke fun at his vocals following his performance.

“I’d rather coach naked than sing in front of 40,000,” Underwood said afterward. “There’s a reason my wife won’t let me sing in church.”

Underwood took over Illinois in mid-March following a one-year stint at Oklahoma State. He had previously led Stephen F. Austin to three NCAA Tournament appearances in as many seasons.

 

AAC plan men’s basketball tourney at new Texas arena in ’20

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The American Athletic Conference will hold its men’s basketball tournament in a new arena in North Texas in 2020.

AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco announced Wednesday that Dickies Arena in Fort Worth has been selected to host the tournament for three years, starting in March 2020. That is only four months after the facility is scheduled to open.

On the same day of a groundbreaking ceremony for the 14,000-seat arena last April, the NCAA announced that first- and second-round games of the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball tournament would be held there. The NCAA women’s gymnastics championships are scheduled there from 2020-22.

The closest AAC school to the new arena is SMU, with its campus in Dallas about 40 miles away.

Orlando will host the 2018 AAC tournament, which moves to Memphis in 2019.

After hearing, UNC now awaits NCAA ruling in academic case

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North Carolina has wrapped up a two-day hearing with an NCAA infractions committee panel that will decide whether the school faces penalties tied to its multi-year academic scandal.

Now the case goes into yet another holding pattern.

School officials spent much of Wednesday in a closed-door meeting with committee members in Nashville, Tennessee. They returned Thursday morning for a second session lasting about 4½ hours with the panel that will determine whether UNC faces penalties such as fines, probation or vacated wins and championships.

NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn confirmed the hearing was complete but both sides were mum afterward.

Osburn didn’t comment further because the panel must deliberate before issuing a ruling, which typically comes weeks to months after a hearing. UNC athletics spokesman Steve Kirschner said the school wouldn’t have any comments about the hearing either.

Getting through the hearing process was a major step toward resolution in a delay-filled case tied to irregular courses, though there’s still the potential for the case to linger beyond a ruling if UNC decides to appeal or pursue legal action. The school faces five top-level charges, including lack of institutional control.

The focus is independent study-style courses in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. The courses were misidentified as lecture classes that didn’t meet and required a research paper or two for typically high grades.

In a 2014 investigation, former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes making up roughly half the enrollments.

The NCAA has said UNC used those courses to help keep athletes eligible.

The case grew as an offshoot of a 2010 probe of the football program that resulted in sanctions in March 2012. The NCAA reopened an investigation in summer 2014, filed charges in a May 2015, revised them in April 2016 and then again in December.

Most notably, the NCAA originally treated some of the academic issues as improper benefits by saying athletes received access to the courses and other assistance generally unavailable to non-athletes. The NCAA removed that charge in the second Notice of Allegations (NOA), then revamped and re-inserted it into the third NOA.

UNC has challenged the NCAA’s jurisdiction, saying its accreditation agency — which sanctioned the school with a year of probation — was the proper authority and that the NCAA was overreaching in what should be an academic matter .

The NCAA enforcement staff countered in a July filing: “The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA’s business.”

UNC has argued non-athletes had access to the courses and athletes didn’t receive special treatment. It has also challenged Wainstein’s estimate of athlete enrollments, saying Wainstein counted athletes who were no longer team members and putting the figure at less than 30 percent.

UNC chancellor Carol Folt, athletic director Bubba Cunningham, men’s basketball coach Roy Williams and women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell attended both hearing days. Football coach Larry Fedora, who wasn’t at UNC at the time in question, attended Wednesday’s session.

None of the coaches are charged with a violation. But football and men’s basketball are referenced in the broad-based improper benefits charge tied to athlete access to the irregular courses, while women’s basketball is tied to a charge focused on a former professor and academic counselor Jan Boxill providing improper assistance on assignments.

Boxill and Deborah Crowder, who is also charged individually in the case, attended Wednesday with their attorneys but didn’t return Thursday. Crowder is a former AFAM office administrator who enrolled students, distributed assignments and graded many of the papers in irregular courses.

The infractions panel is chaired by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey and includes former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Kansas’ forward Dedric Lawson accused of walking out on $88 bar tab

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Dedric Lawson has been accused of walking out on an $88 bar tab, according to a police report obtained by the Memphis Commercial-Appeal.

Here’s what allegedly happened: He was at a bar in Overton Square in Memphis at 1:30 a.m. when he was handed a bill for more than $88 by a waitress. That waitress, who said she went to high school with Lawson, told police that he walked out of the bar and got into a Nissan Maxima and left without paying the bill.

Dedric has denied the allegation. Appearing on 92.9 FM, an ESPN radio station in Memphis, he said that he ordered two drinks worth a total of $10.50 and gave the waitress $12, but she wanted him to pay for drinks that were ordered by other people for other people. He did not order or drink those drinks, Lawson said, so he did not want to pay for them.

Lawson transferred from Memphis to Kansas this offseason. He was suspended by the Jayhawks for an altercation in practice last month and left home from the team’s trip to Italy earlier this month. He averaged 19.9 points and 9.2 boards for the Tigers last season, and will be sitting out this year as a transfer at Kansas.

Late on Wednesday, another former Tiger, Joe Jackson, was arrested on felony drug and gun charges.

College programs in Barcelona safe after terror attack

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August is the time that college basketball programs take their overseas trips, and one of the most popular destinations for that travel is Barcelona.

On Thursday evening, tragedy struck in one of the city’s most popular tourist locations, as a van driven down Las Ramblas struck pedestrians. Local authorities have confirmed there are fatalities and are terming the incident a “terror attack”.

RELATED: NBC News has the latest on the incident

At least five programs are currently in Barcelona: Clemson, Arizona, Oregon State, Grand Canyon and Tulane. All five programs have released statements confirming that all members of the traveling parties are safe and accounted for.

The attack occurred right outside Clemson’s hotel. The team is currently on lockdown.

According to Oregon State head coach Wayne Tinkle, the attack “happened directly in front of our hotel while we were having a team meal in the restaurant.”