NCAA’s Failure to Oversee Discipline Results in a Slap on the Wrist for Baylor’s Zamora

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bionicteaching
Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bionicteaching

by: Megan Elliott*

September 18, 2016

Following a series of highly publicized scandals, Baylor University’s football program once again finds itself negatively portrayed in the news.[1]  In August 2016, sophomore wide receiver Ishmael Zamora was cited by Waco police in response to a Snapchat video of Zamora brutally abusing his dog.[2]  The video shows Zamora kicking and whipping the dog in an apparent attempt to discipline the animal for a potty-training accident.[3]  Zamora was eventually charged with a “Class C misdemeanor and [was] given a citation that could cost up to $500.”[4]  Zamora released a statement through the University, stating, “I am sorry that I took out my frustration on my dog and accept the punishment that comes with it.  This incident will never, ever, happen again.  I truly love my dog, however, I know that my actions showed differently and I know that I made a big mistake.”[5]

NCAA Allows Head Coaches to Use Their Discretion When Disciplining Student-Athletes

Because the NCAA has no uniform discipline guidelines regarding student-athletes charged with crimes, Baylor head coach Jim Grobe was free to exercise his discretion when deciding how to punish Zamora.  Coach Grobe imposed a three-game suspension, stating, “Our goal is for this discipline to be educational and restorative, and I believe that we have taken corrective measures to help Ishmael learn from his actions and to better understand the behavior we demand of all students at the university.”[6]  Critics of the suspension argue that the punishment was too light because it did not ban Zamora from practice, covered non-conference games only, and did not reflect the gravity of Zamora’s misdeeds.[7]

Earlier this year, at a press conference in the wake of Baylor’s rape scandal and subsequent firing of longtime football head coach Art Briles, Coach Grobe emphasized his focus on discipline, stating, “Winning is very, very important, but not at the expense of character and integrity.”[8]  Grobe also said, “[t]his egregious stuff is off the table.  There’s no tolerance [for violent behavior].”[9]  Unfortunately, what the new head coach of a highly successful football program said in a press conference, and what he did in real-life, were quite divergent. This discrepancy is evidence that the NCAA needs uniform criminal conduct guidelines.

NCAA Regulates Many Facets of Student-Athlete Life, Should Also Regulate Student-Athlete Criminal Conduct

While the NCAA regulates drug use, sports wagering, and talent agents, there is no specific section regulating student-athletes who commit misdemeanors and felonies.[10]  According to the NCAA Division I Manual, if a student-athlete tests positive for a substance in a banned drug class (other than a “street drug”), the student-athlete is “ineligible for all regular-season and postseason competition during the time period ending one calendar year (365 days) after the collection of the student-athlete’s positive drug-test specimen and until he or she tests negative…”[11]  If the student-athlete violates the sports wagering policy by engaging in “point shaving” or any other kinds of wagering involving his or her institution, the student-athlete “shall permanently lose all remaining regular-season and postseason eligibility in all sports.”[12]

On the other hand, if the student-athlete is convicted of a crime, the head coach and athletic department are tasked with determining the player’s punishment.[13]  In the cutthroat world of college football, the punishments are often light in order to preserve the winning lineup.[14]

The NCAA’s Board of Governors, for its part, has “directed the leadership of Divisions I, II and III to consider developing legislation to address college athletes involved in reported incidents of sexual violence.”[15]  It is telling, however, that the directive is for the Divisions to “consider” developing legislation regarding incidents of sexual violence, and that the suggested legislation should comply with a 2014 resolution.[16]  The 2014 resolution merely requests that members “[c]omply with campus authorities and follow campus protocol for reporting incidents of sexual violence . . . educate student-athletes . . . [and] assure compliance.”[17]  There is no mention of the NCAA overseeing uniform discipline guidelines or banning violent players altogether.

Coach Grobe is known for being a “disciplinarian.”[18]  Before coming to Baylor, Grobe was the head coach at Wake Forest University and was the former head of the ethics committee for the American Football Coaches Association.[19]  Grobe said all the right things regarding character and integrity in his initial press conference.[20]

A three-game, non-conference suspension for back-talking or lateness would be “tough.”[21]  A three-game, non-conference suspension for misdemeanor animal abuse is not “tough.”  The message sent by Coach Grobe’s weak punishment is that abusing animals does not negatively impact one’s character and integrity, and that winning is in fact “very, very important.”  The NCAA already regulates almost every facet of student-athlete conduct.  It should also regulate the punishment of student-athlete criminal behavior.  The pressure on Division I coaches is too high for them to be allowed discretion when punishing athletes convicted of criminal behavior.[22]

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* Staff Writer, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate, May 2018, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law

[1] See Bruce Tomaso, A Quick, Complete Guide to the Baylor Football Sex-Assault Scandal, Dallas Morning News (last updated June 1, 2016, 1:20 PM), http://crimeblog.dallasnews.com/2016/04/how-a-sexual-assault-scandal-engulfed-baylors-football-program.html (providing brief overview of Baylor University’s sexual assault scandal and subsequent firing of University President Ken Starr and football head coach Art Briles); Paula Lavigne, Baylor Faces Accusations of Ignoring Sex Assault Victims, ESPN (Feb. 2, 2016), http://www.espn.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/14675790/baylor-officials-accused-failing-investigate-sexual-assaults-fully-adequately-providing-support-alleged-victims (investigating original allegations of victims); see also Press Release, Baylor University, Baylor University Board of Regents Findings of Fact (May 26, 2016), http://www.baylor.edu/rtsv/doc.php/266596.pdf (detailing University’s failure to properly investigate sexual assault allegations, and noting “[Baylor football coaches] reinforced an overall perception that football was above the rules, and that there was no culture of accountability for misconduct”).

[2] See Noel Smart, GRAPHIC: Video Shows Baylor Football Player Abusing Dog, KXXV (last updated Aug. 19, 2016, 2:45 PM), http://www.kxxv.com/story/32794719/exclusive-video-shows-baylor-football-player-abusing-dog (detailing events behind Zamora’s misdemeanor citation for animal abuse). Note: the article links to the graphic video that led to the investigation.

[3] See id.

[4] Id.

[5] See Press Release, Baylor University, Baylor Statement On Sophomore Wide Receiver Ishmael Zamora (Aug. 30, 2016), http://www.baylorbears.com/genrel/083016aab.html (announcing University’s response to Zamora’s misdemeanor and quoting Zamora and Baylor Football head coach Jim Grobe).

[6] Id.

[7] See Demand that Baylor Football Player Ishmael Zamora be Kicked Off the Football Team for Beating an Innocent Dog, Care2, http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/309/798/421/ (noting reasons petition signers want Zamora removed from the Baylor team). The petition for Zamora’s removal has more than 180,000 signatures at the time of writing. See id.

[8] John Werner, New Baylor Coach Grobe Stresses Character, Integrity at 1st Press Conference, WacoTrib.com (June 3, 2016, 6:01 PM), http://www.wacotrib.com/sports/baylor/football/new-baylor-coach-grobe-stresses-character-integrity-at-st-press/article_c16967dd-6db2-53b6-8faa-250d345907fe.html (reporting highlights from Coach Grobe’s initial press conference after taking over Baylor coaching job from Coach Briles).

[9] Id.

[10] See Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n, NCAA Division I Manual Bylaw 10.2, 10.3, 12.3 (2016) (enumerating the NCAA’s rules for drug use, sports wagering, and talent agents).

[11] Id. at Bylaw 18.4.1.4.1.

[12] Id. at Bylaw 10.3.2 (emphasis added).

[13] See id. (observing there is no section in the Manual covering criminal behavior).

[14] See Kevin Trahan, The NCAA Talks Tough, but Does Nothing to Punish Violence Against Women, Vice Sports, (Aug. 14, 2015), https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/the-ncaa-talks-tough-but-does-nothing-to-punish-violence-against-women (editorializing that NCAA needs to regulate student-athlete criminal conduct, and quoting attorney Tom Newkirk, who said, “Without any [criminal conduct] standards, it leaves a lot of subjectivity among the universities for how they’re going to handle it, which leads [to] this Wild West situation.”).

[15] Press Release, NCAA, Board Urges Legislation to Address Sexual Violence, (Aug. 4, 2016, 2:22 PM), https://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/media-center/news/board-urges-legislation-address-sexual-violence.

[16] See id.

[17] Id.

[18] See Werner, supra note 8.

[19] See id.

[20] See supra notes 8–9 and accompanying text. Grobe also stated in the press conference, “[e]very decision we make going forward will be made with Baylor University and all of our students and student-athletes in mind. I’m so proud to be a part of a renewed commitment to doing things the right way.” Werner, supra note 8.

[21] See generally Trahan, supra note 14 (“[Schools] talk tough, but know they will not be held accountable through any punitive action.”).

[22] See Trahan, supra note 14; see also Jason Kirk and Peter Berkes, Dan Mullen’s Words Made MSU’s Response to a Violent Video Even Worse, SBNation (July 13, 2016, 9:20 AM), http://www.sbnation.com/college-football/2016/7/13/12167794/dan-mullen-mississippi-state-sec-media-days-jeffery-simmons (criticizing MSU football coach’s one-game suspension of player caught on video punching a woman). The authors write, “The football coach ‘wasn’t involved as much’ in a five-star’s one-game suspension. If you believe that, please climb the nearest staircase to the moon.” Id. See also George Schroeder, Nick Saban on Second Chances for Alabama Players, USA Today (June 20, 2016, 1:43 PM), http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/sec/2016/06/14/nick-saban-cam-robinson-alabama-football-second-chances/85868162/ (detailing Alabama coach’s lenient punishment of violent student-athlete).