Congress pushing to curb NCAA's investigative and punitive autonomy

A bipartisan group in Congress wants to create a new federal law that would force the NCAA to change the way it investigates and punishes member schools that break the association's rules.

Rep. David Kustoff, R-Tenn., said he believes the NCAA's enforcement process is inefficient and unfair. He has teamed with Reps. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, and Josh Harder, D-Calif., to introduce a bill Tuesday that would create a statute of limitations on NCAA violations, place limits on how long the NCAA has to complete its investigations and give schools an option to appeal any sanctions they receive to a third-party arbitrator.

"The NCAA is a monopoly with no oversight," Kustoff told ESPN. "The NCAA acts as investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. [Our bill] sets up a framework. The NCAA can still do their jobs, but with more constraints."

The proposal is designed to make the NCAA's process more closely resemble the criminal justice system. It includes a statute of limitations that would prohibit the NCAA from punishing a school for any violation that occurred more than two years earlier in an effort to avoid punishing current athletes for the misdeeds of others.

The proposal also gives schools the ability to ask for a three-person panel of neutral arbitrators to review and adjust any punishments that the school believes are unfair. The NCAA's current rules do allow for an appeal in some cases, but the appeals process is run by a committee that is made up mostly of individuals from member schools.

The bill arrives one day after a group of 75 athletic directors from FBS-level schools sent a letter to the NCAA recommending a long list of changes to its enforcement process. The letter criticized the recently formed unit of the NCAA's enforcement arm that is designed to take on complex cases for its lack of efficiency. It also asked the NCAA to consider changes that would help mitigate the perception that some investigators are biased and to dole out punishments that impact specific "bad actors" instead of the athletes who attend a school where a violation occurred.

The NCAA's enforcement process has come under scrutiny in the past few months from many of college sports' power brokers. Tom McMillen, a former congressman who now runs the Lead1 athletic director group that wrote the letter, said their recommendations were the result of months of consideration.

"The process was very collaborative with the NCAA, so it's not intended to be adversarial," McMillen said. "The NCAA was also very helpful throughout the process."

Kustoff, a graduate of the University of Memphis, said he has long been concerned about "disproportionate treatment" among different member schools. (A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Kustoff represented University of Memphis's Congressional district; the university is located in a district represented by Steve Cohen.) He was a student at Memphis when the NCAA stripped the Tigers of a Final Four appearance after finding that head coach Dana Kirk has provided money to star players. His interest in the topic was piqued again in 2019 when the NCAA began investigating his alma mater's basketball team due to the relationship between head coach Penny Hardaway and then-freshman James Wiseman. Kustoff said that he thinks the most popular college teams such as UNC and Duke too often receive a "slap on the wrist" for violations while other programs face harsher consequences.

Memphis was the first among a half-dozen major men's basketball programs to be routed through the association's recently-formed Complex Case Unit. More than 18 months after the unit received its case, Memphis is still waiting for a resolution along with the five other schools.

The NCAA announced in August that it was making revisions to try to streamline its processes. The organization declined to comment on the proposed legislation on Tuesday.

Under the proposed new law, the NCAA would have a maximum of eight months after starting a probe to present a school with any allegations of wrongdoing. The association would then have a maximum of one year to complete its investigation and issue any sanction. Current NCAA rules don't provide any specific time limits. Critics such as SEC commissioner Greg Sankey say that the delay in punishing schools who break the NCAA's rules have hurt the association's credibility.

"These processes take too long," Sankey recently told ESPN. "What we've done almost at every turn is say -- and I mean we collectively -- we have to be aggressive and penalize. We have to have stronger penalties. We've completely forgot about it, the time necessities relate to accountability."

The bill, called the NCAA Accountability Act, is one of more than a half-dozen recent proposals in Congress to try to reshape college sports. Most of the legislation has focused on the possibility of creating federal rules for the ways that college athletes can make money from their name, image and likeness (NIL). NCAA president Mark Emmert and others have asked members of Congress to help them in passing an NIL bill. That request seems to have opened the door for many politicians who are critical of the NCAA and its power over a multi-billion dollar interstate industry to ask the association to change in other ways.

Kustoff said his bill is one piece of needed change to the NCAA's way of doing business. He said the potential that the NCAA could soon start doling out punishments based on its vaguely defined NIL rules heightens the importance of reforming its enforcement policies now.

"This bill is designed to address a more fundamental issue with the NCAA, which is really its unrestrained authority," Kustoff said. "It is a piece of the puzzle, and ultimately Washington is going to have a role in figuring it out."

ESPN's Mark Schlabach contributed to this report.