Nocera continues his great work:
In the U.S.C. case, the N.C.A.A. made a series of allegations about Reggie Bush, the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, the most memorable of which was that his parents had lived rent-free in a house owned — heaven forbid! — by one of two would-be agents. The N.C.A.A. views any transaction between a college athlete and an agent as a violation of its amateurism rules.
Let’s stop here for a second to note that this rule (like the rule that players cannot in any way be compensated by third parties, but perhaps even worse) is especially indefensible. Why on earth should it be illegal for players to have someone to look out for their interests? One suspects, in part, because agents may be particularly likely to explain that, say, it doesn’t make any sense that universities can shove money in their pockets from selling products with your number or likeness with both hands, but if a nickel somehow ends up in your pocket it’s a horrible scandal and you won’t be allowed to play.
The university official the N.C.A.A. singled out was Todd McNair, 47, an African-American assistant football coach. One of the would-be agents, Lloyd Lake, who has a history of prior arrests, claimed that he had told McNair about the relationship during an angry two-and-a-half minute phone call late on the night of Jan. 6, 2006. McNair, for his part, said that he had no recollection of ever meeting Lake, much less having an angry phone call with him. There was no evidence to corroborate Lake’s claim.
Not that that mattered. The N.C.A.A.’s Committee on Infractions concluded that Lake was believable, McNair was not, and that the coach was guilty of “unethical conduct.” Thus labeled, McNair’s coaching career was effectively destroyed.
The evidence is simply beyond the pale. To find McNair guilty of unethical conduct, the enforcement staff had to put words into Lake’s mouth that he never uttered. It botched its questioning of McNair — and then, realizing its mistake, chose not to re-interview him. One enforcement official sent a back-channel e-mail describing McNair as “a lying, morally bankrupt criminal.” And that’s just for starters.
Because he is a public figure, McNair had to show that the N.C.A.A. had acted with “actual malice” — that is, it wrote things in the full knowledge that they were false. As any journalist knows, it is very difficult for a public figure to sue for defamation — precisely because actual malice is so hard to prove. At one point during the hearing, the judge told the N.C.A.A.’s lawyer that he well understood why the organization would want to keep evidence away from the public; if he were the N.C.A.A., he would want to keep it from the public, too.
That an organization dedicated to the enforcement of indefensibly exploitative rules would also enforce these rules in an arbitrary and capricious manner is…not surprising.