In the midst of controversles over energy, the Middle East and the Panama Canal, Congress has found time to take on another troubling aspect of modern life: the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
The NCAA won't raise your electric bills or increase the price of gas or get the Arabs and Israelis to the conference table. But it may put good old Alumni U. on probation for being a little too zealous in its recruitment of future All-Americas. And messing with some congressmen's hometown university is, well, un-American, especially if it angers potential voters.
This time, the NCAA made the mistake of uncovering rule violations at the University of Minnesota and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Minnesota doesn't like aspects of the penalty imposed by the NCAA. Las Vegas doesn't think it is guilty. So Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minn.) and Rep. Joe Santini (D-Nev.), in the true spirit of "protecting" their constituents, have persuaded the House Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations to look into the organization.
The Las Vegas part of this episode is particularly noteworthy. The principal in the case is Jerry Tarkanian, the well-known basketball coach who once was employed at Long Beach State, which he left just before the school was placed on NCAA probation for a few dozen alleged rule violations during his tenure.
Now Tarkanian is in hot water again, this time at Nevada-Las Vegas. He never showed any remorse over what happened at Long Beach, which is considered one of the most blatant violation cases in the history of NCAA investigations, and he is not apologetic this time.
Instead, he charges that the NCAA and one of its investigators, David Berst, have a vendetta against him. They were going to nail him, he claims, as soon as he walked on the Las Vegas campus.
The NCAA hardly is a perfect organization. It can be antagonistic secretive, high-handed, belligerent and hostile. But it is not stupid.
Staff investigators were aware from the start of the Las Vegas case that whatever they found would be challenged in court and would be looked upon by some as a further harassment of Tarkanian. Nobody within the NCAA was going to move against Las Vegas until completely convinced the organization had overwhelming proof the school and Tarkanian had violated enough rules to warrant probation.
A local Las Vegas judge disagrees. When the school tried to suspend Tarkanian for two years as ordered for the NCAA, Tarkanian went to court and got the suspension halted. The judge was outraged at what the NCAA and Berst had done to the town's resident angel, and said so in a highly indignant written opinion.
Tarkanian supporters such as Santini are ecstatic over the judge's decision. But so were supporters at Alabama. Oklahoma and other schools that took the NCAA to court in past cases and won the first round before a sympathetic hometown judge.
Once any of these cases move to the federal appeals level, the NCAA's batting average would shame a Rod Carew. Only once has the organization lost a major test of its rules - and the victor in that instance was Howard University's soccer team, which was fighting to keep its national title.
Tarkanian's alleged discretions, according to the NCAA, included his arranging through another person to encourage some of those being interviewed by the NCAA not to cooperate and to give incorrect information; he arranged or found someone else to arrange for such things as plane tickets, clothes, meals and, in one instance, a grade in a class never attended by a certain athlete, and he arranged lodging for recuits at Las Vegas' glamour hotels, which would be as incorrect under NCAA rules as Maryland putting someone up at the Watergate apartments.
The struggle by the school to avoid probation ultimately involved the Nevada attorney general's office and 26 hours of hearings before various NCAA committees.
Never before had the NCAA spent so long investigating a case, and never before had an accused school spent so much time fighting the charges.
Now the House subcommittee wants to examine the fairness of NCAA rules, the methods provided for the due process and whether the NCAA violates any anti-trust laws, something a half-dozen or so court cases already have failed to prove.
Perhaps a subcommittee finally will clear up a history of misconceptions about the NCAA.
No, it does not conduct its investigations in the same manner as law enforcement agencies. But NCAA members aren't violating the law; they are violating NCAA's bylaws and constitution, which were approved through majority vote of member schools. And those same schools agree to abide by those rules and cooperate with the NCAA during an investigation of alleged violations.
Yes, executive director Walker Byers has far more power and influence than he would like everyone to believe. But in the area of investigations, the staff at the Shawnee Mission, Kan., headquarters does not run around unchecked. The final decision concerning probations and sentences lies in the hands of members of the NCAA committee on infractions, not the NCAA staff, and appeals are heard by the NCAA council, not Byers.
If the 718 NCAA member schools don't like how the staff is investigating cases, or if they don't think the rules they voted in are fair, they can easily remedy the situation. They can fire Byers or they can change the rules.