KANSAS CITY — With tears in his eyes and his voice cracking, Missouri athletics director Jim Sterk rode a highway of emotions Tuesday, from shock to sadness to anger.
Nearly three years to the day since a Mizzou athletics tutor became as famous as any athlete on campus, the NCAA delivered the conclusion to the school’s academic misconduct scandal. The NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee denied the school’s appeal of sanctions levied against the Tigers' football, baseball and softball programs, including a one-year postseason ban for all three teams.
“Now I’m just angry,” Sterk said at a joint news conference with MU chancellor Alexander Cartwright at the Sprint Center before the Missouri men's basketball team played Oklahoma in the Hall of Fame Classic. “I’m angry because of our student-athletes and coaches who were so wrongly impacted by this decision from the appeals committee and the Committee on Infractions. The NCAA has proven again it cannot effectively serve its membership and the student-athletes it’s supposed to protect. The decision today is just wrong.”
Cartwright said MU was “disappointed and appalled” at the appeals committee’s decision to uphold the three major sanctions Mizzou chose to appeal: the one-year postseason ban, recruiting restrictions and scholarship reductions. Both campus leaders, though, didn’t regret the school’s decision to self-report the allegations that first surfaced in November 2016, when former tutor Yolanda Kumar came forward to Mizzou compliance and admitted to doing coursework for MU athletes.
In the initial Jan. 31 ruling by the Committee on Infractions, the NCAA found that Kumar violated NCAA rules for ethical conduct, academic misconduct and academic extra benefits when she completed academic work for 12 Mizzou athletes between the summer of 2015 and the summer of 2016. Mizzou and the NCAA’s enforcement staff agreed that Kumar had committed Level I violations, though MU was lauded in the NCAA panel report for exemplary cooperation during the investigation.
“I don’t think I’d do anything differently,” Sterk said. “We did everything right. Where it fell apart was with the NCAA staff and the organization.”
Cartwright said: "I can’t think of anything right now that we’d do different. If we found out something was happening we’d immediately self-report and we’d immediately work with the enforcement staff. We’d do all the things we did and certainly hope we’d have a different outcome. It’s the right thing to do.”
Reached for comment Tuesday, Kumar said she hadn’t paid much attention to the appeal and declined to discuss the case.
From there, the Tigers are out of options to contest the ruling. Sterk said he's asked a high-profile legal firm that represented North Carolina and North Carolina State in recent NCAA compliance cases about a possible lawsuit.
“I asked them six months ago, ‘If this is not overturned and the wrong decision comes out, what legal recourse do we have?” Sterk said. “They said unfortunately not, there’s no legal recourse.”
For Barry Odom’s football team, the postseason ban means no matter what happens in Friday’s regular-season finale at Arkansas, the 5-6 Tigers will not go to a bowl game this year. That also means the athletics department will miss out on a projected $8 million to $9 million in revenue distributed by the Southeastern Conference from the bowls, the conference championship game and the College Football Playoff. Cartwright said the university will lend the athletics department money to cover the revenue shortage. MU can receive half the lost revenue in five years if the athletics program isn't put on further major sanctions.
Since January, Mizzou has argued that its sanctions were excessive and inconsistent with case precedent, especially since fellow SEC member Mississippi State avoided a postseason ban for similar academic misconduct charges in August. Unlike Missouri, Mississippi State was able to work with the NCAA through a newly approved process called negotiated resolution that allows schools and the NCAA to agree on violations and penalties without formal hearings. The negotiated resolution process was passed into NCAA bylaw last August and went into effect this past January, a few weeks before the NCAA Committee on Infractions announced Mizzou's sanctions.
According to the appeals committee’s published ruling, the heart of the conflict was a squabble over mitigating and aggravating factors that determined the penalties. MU argued that two mitigating factors should have been applied to its case — that the school promptly self-detected and self-disclosed the violations — but the appeals committee upheld the infractions panel’s handling of those factors.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey called Tuesday's ruling "unusually severe."
"Throughout this process, the University of Missouri has conducted itself with great integrity and has been praised by the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions for its exemplary cooperation in this matter," Sankey said. "While there is no excuse for the actions of a single academic tutor and the small number of student-athletes involved, the penalties applied are unusually severe when fully considered.”
With Tuesday's ruling, the Mizzou baseball and softball teams will be prohibited from playing in their respective 2020 Southeastern Conference tournaments and NCAA Tournaments.
Sterk stood alongside Odom on Tuesday morning when the football coach informed the team their bowl hopes were dashed with the NCAA decision. With his team on a five-game losing streak, Odom was hoping to salvage a disappointing season with the program’s third straight bowl trip.
Sterk choked back tears talking about the players affected by Tuesday’s ruling.
“This is a really hurtful decision that’s a blow because it impacts so many student-athletes,” he said. “When our coaches are talking to kids that have eligibility left their senior year and they can’t go to postseason play it’s really, really difficult.”