NCAA's penalty phase has a few flaws

The NCAA Infractions Committee pointed a finger at former Michigan coach Steve Fisher, but said there was no direct evidence linking him to the major violations committed within the school's basketball program during Fisher's tenure.

So, while Fisher may have given the access to the late Ed Martin at Michigan, he didn't do anything that should keep him from coaching at San Diego State without penalty. The NCAA couldn't touch Fisher, no matter what came to light during its investigation of Michigan.

Then again, could the committee have sanctioned Fisher if it found any connection in Michigan and still protected the innocent bystanders in San Diego? Therein lies the problem with the infractions committee's penalty phase.

As infractions committee chair Tom Yeager said, "if there was a fair way then the NCAA would love to figure it out and apply those kind of sanctions."

Yeager is referring to the penalties that get lumped on the current coaches and athletes who had nothing to do with the violations being penalized. If a coach is found in violation, but has since been removed from the program, the NCAA has had cases where they make the next school show cause as to why it should hire the coach. That kind of move ends up being a way to discourage another school from hiring the offending coach.

At least one coach, former California coach Todd Bozeman, was put on an eight-year ban from coaching in the NCAA after he was found in violation of a rule while in charge at Cal. But what happens, as in the case of Fisher, if the coach is already at another school? There was no answer on that question and it's apparently moot now for Fisher.

Yeager did, however, make it clear Thursday that the committee didn't approve of Fisher giving the access to Martin in the mid-90's. The committee cite Michigan's allowing Martin into the locker room, giving him hotel rooms at the 1992 and '93 Final Four cities, preferred courtside seating at Crisler Arena, using Martin in recruiting visits in a prospect's house, and allowing him to be "as close as a guy could be" to the program.

But Yeager also used legal terms to stress there was no direct evidence linking Fisher to the violations. In laymen's terms, they didn't have anything tangible that said Fisher knew Martin was paying the players.

Martin, before his death in February, didn't testify that Fisher knew of any payments. Fisher, who declined to issue a new statement Thursday, said his statement from November stands.

"In my 15 years at Michigan from 1982 until 1997, I was proud to be a part of the rich tradition of Michigan athletics," Fisher said in November. "I understand that the University of Michigan needed to take action to protect the future and the integrity of the men's basketball program. Also,
I want to emphatically state once again that I had no knowledge of or any involvement in the exchange of money between any of our players and Ed Martin.

"I am saddened, disappointed and angered by the events that have hurt so many people. It is unfortunate that the young men who wore the Michigan
uniform so proudly will no longer have their accomplishments recorded.

"My thoughts are with our former players, coaches and their families."

So it appears Fisher will continue to coach at San Diego State without any problems. He said he didn't know of any wrongdoing, but the infractions committee is essentially saying he used poor judgment by allowing Martin access to his players. The committee can't prove he knew about the violations, and it's not a violation to allow a booster around players.

But the NCAA needs to address its penalty phase. If it struggles to go after the coaches who were in the program, and can't hurt the players who committed the violations, then what is it left to do?

The best solution would be hammer the school financially. But Yeager said the committee wasn't going to add any more of a financial penalty. Pinning a $1 million fine, or something along those lines, on the school would certainly have a lasting effect, more so than taking away games and postseason hopes from the innocent players.

If the coaches and players involved in the penalty are still at the school, then they should be penalized immediately. Another possibility is putting the penalty on the program once the eligibility of the current players expires.

Clearly, there are no easy solutions. But a review of the current penalty phase must be addressed.

Fisher may not have to answer the questions anymore, having been absolved of any wrongdoing. He said as much, and the committee couldn't find any proof to dispute his claims.

Still, if there was guilt, the question remains: Could the NCAA have penalized Fisher, too?

And therein lies a problem the NCAA must solve for future cases.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.