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Here’s how the NCAA’s investigation into Michigan State over Larry Nassar could work

The NCAA isn’t law enforcement, but it could still play a role.

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GYMNASTICS-USA-ABUSE Photo credit should read JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images

In January, the NCAA opened an investigation into whether Michigan State broke any NCAA rules in its handling of sexual abuse allegations against Larry Nassar, the former university and USA Gymnastics sports medicine doctor who was sentenced earlier this year to 40 to 175 years in prison.

Nassar pleaded guilty in November to multiple counts of criminal sexual misconduct in Michigan, months after pleading guilty to federal child pornography charges. Michigan State athletes are among the many survivors of Nassar’s years of abuse.

“The NCAA has sent a letter of inquiry to Michigan State University regarding potential NCAA rules violations related to the assaults Larry Nassar perpetrated against girls and young women, including some student-athletes at Michigan State,” the NCAA said in a statement at the time.

In a letter dated March 22, Michigan State lawyer Mike Glazier told the NCAA that the school and its legal team found “no NCAA rules violations” after a “thorough and analytic” review of those rules.

“I trust that you will see that the University is in no way attempting to sidestep the issues facing it, and that if the University had any reason to believe the criminal conduct of Nassar also implicated NCAA rules violations, the University would accept responsibility in that area as well,” Glazier wrote in the letter, which the Lansing State Journal obtained from MSU on Wednesday.

In the aftermath of Nassar’s sentencing and the NCAA sending its letter of inquiry, Michigan State Athletic director Mark Hollis announced his retirement on Jan. 26. Just hours after that announcement, ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported that MSU’s failures in handling allegations of sexual assault may have extended beyond Nassar, notably into the football and basketball programs.

Which specific rules could Michigan State have broken?

In the context of the NCAA, “rules” is a broad term. The NCAA’s written policy on issues like sexual assault is outlined in items called “principles” and “commitments,” which the NCAA says are non-binding for schools and conferences. The idea is that those organizations will enact real rules with real consequences in the same spirit as the NCAA’s words.

One of the NCAA’s “principles of conduct” pertains to health and safety:

It is the responsibility of each member institution to protect the health of, and provide a safe environment for, each of its participating student-athletes.

Michigan State had Nassar on its faculty and working with athletes from 1997 until his suspension and firing in 2016. Former MSU athletes in multiple sports said Nassar abused them while he worked there, and a former MSU gymnast who gave a victim-impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing said she told a coach of Nassar’s abuse in 1997.

Another NCAA principle says it’s the responsibility of schools to “establish and maintain an environment that values cultural diversity and gender equity.”

The NCAA also has what it calls the Commitment to Student-Athlete Well-Being, which, among other things, states, “Each member institution should also provide an environment that fosters fairness, sportsmanship, safety, honesty and positive relationships between student-athletes and representatives of the institution.”

The NCAA’s Division I Manual is large, and NCAA investigators might find more items in it that apply to Michigan State. Finding that athletic departments “lack institutional control” is a somewhat elastic way for the NCAA to assess noncompliance. But those are the major passages relating to student-athlete safety, and they aren’t exactly rules.

The NCAA investigated Baylor in 2017 after that university fired football coach Art Briles amid a sexual assault and domestic violence scandal. Baylor reportedly mishandled allegations against players for years, but the NCAA didn’t find any rules violations at the school, and the investigation ended there.

What is the NCAA’s judicial process?

Normally, NCAA discipline runs through the Committee on Infractions, a group of about two dozen administrators from schools across the country. The COI provides a Notice of Allegations to a school, which either confesses to rule-breaking or contests the allegations in a hearing. Then the committee imposes sanctions, or it doesn’t.

The NCAA uses that process for allegations ranging from academic fraud to players being paid cash under the table to various recruitment violations. It’s the standard mechanism.

When the NCAA imposed sweeping sanctions on Penn State in 2012 after Jerry Sandusky’s years of sexual abuse of children, it used a different process. The NCAA’s deliberations on Penn State were more centralized and involved the organization’s president, Mark Emmert, who announced the punishments himself.

If rules were broken, how can the NCAA punish Michigan State?

There is no formal policy that outlines what happens to schools that fail to live up to NCAA “principles” and “commitments.” That doesn’t mean the NCAA can’t do anything. The NCAA has gone off book to punish schools and people. But college sports’ governing body is not used to processing cases as serious as this one.

After Sandusky’s crimes came to light, Penn State submitted to an independent investigation by former FBI director Louis Freeh, and the NCAA used the findings in Freeh’s report to help determine the sanctions. Penn State had to pay a $60 million fine, lost football scholarship slots, and was to be banned from the postseason in that sport for four years, among other sanctions. Some of them were later rolled back. Internal emails suggested that the NCAA, long entangled in lawsuits over its Penn State sanctions, was uncomfortable about punishing future athletes for old crimes.

At Michigan State, punishment of specific sports teams appears less likely, because Nassar was a faculty member who dealt with athletes across multiple sports. At Penn State, Sandusky was an assistant coach assigned to just the football team.

The NCAA could more easily punish any individuals who broke rules in enabling Nassar’s abuse. The organization’s most common tool to that effect is a show-cause, where it requires any athletic department looking to hire that person “show cause” for why it should be allowed to make that hire. Here is one reference point:

The precedent here is Dave Bliss, whose role in the Baylor basketball scandal went so far beyond the violation of NCAA bylaws that the COI effectively banned him from college basketball (at least in the NCAA) forever.

In the course of investigating Michigan State over the Nassar case, the NCAA could possibly find a violation that had nothing to do with Nassar. In that case, the NCAA would have to make a decision on whether or not to pursue it.

How can the NCAA compel Michigan State to cooperate?

The NCAA does not have subpoena power. Michigan State says it will cooperate fully with the organization.

In a separate matter, Outside the Lines reported that the school had previously withheld information for years from federal officials who had been monitoring the school’s Title IX compliance.

Much of the NCAA’s work comes down to politics and backroom dealing. If Michigan State doesn’t cooperate, the NCAA could use the threat of sanctions to pressure the school. The NCAA can’t levy legal consequences on MSU, but in the insular world of college sports, the organization can do whatever it wants as long as committee members vote on it. That is true whether the rulebook has solutions or not.

How long could an NCAA investigation take?

We don’t know. Late in 2017, the NCAA concluded an investigation into academic fraud at the University of North Carolina. It began in 2010.