LAWRENCE — Kansas has laid out the defense it will use in its ongoing battle with the NCAA.
The university has made public its response to the collegiate athletics governing body’s notice of allegations, which was delivered in September and primarily took aim at recruiting violations allegedly committed by the Jayhawk men’s basketball program. Thursday represented the deadline for KU to submit its response to the notice, which outlined five violations considered Level I. Those infractions carry the stiffest penalties, including potential postseason bans, scholarship reductions and show cause penalties and suspensions for members of the coaching staff.
Among the NCAA’s charges included a lack of institutional control. The organization specifically named head coach Bill Self, assistant coach Kurtis Townsend and former Adidas representative TJ Gassnola as individuals that "intentionally and willfully engaged in NCAA violations and blatantly (disregarded) the NCAA constitution and bylaws."
The NCAA has 60 days to reply to the case, with a hearing in front of an infractions panel to follow. However, the overall process could still take months to complete, and KU could also potentially challenge any decision in federal court, which would further delay a resolution.
"[T]here are several facts that are in dispute; there are assumptions made; and, perhaps most importantly, there are unprecedented and novel theories put forward that, if found to have merit by the Panel, would dramatically alter the collegiate sports landscape in ways not contemplated by the Membership," KU’s response read. "This infractions proceeding would redefine the criminal verdicts in the federal trials if the Panel adopts the enforcement staff's theories."
Testifying in the October 2018 trial of three individuals implicated in the federal government’s probe into corruption in college basketball recruiting, Gassnola stated that he did make or scheduled illicit payments with the parents or guardians of future Jayhawk commits Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa to steer them to the Adidas-partnered university, though Gassnola also testified no KU coaches were aware of his actions.
KU cited former Adidas executive James Gatto's conviction at the trials, with a jury determining beyond a reasonable doubt that under-the-table payments from Gatto and Gassnola were concealed from the university and that the university was defrauded in the process — as well as the judge's order that the two provide restitution to the university — as evidence that KU is a victim in the situation.
"The enforcement staff nonetheless seeks to turn the criminal verdict on its head by asserting novel and factually unsupported theories as to why Gassnola and Gatto were representatives of the University at the time of their criminal actions, thereby holding the University responsible for the crime committed against it," the response read. "Neither NCAA legislation nor the facts support the enforcement staff's assertions."
The names of Preston, De Sousa and former University of Arizona standout Deandre Ayton are redacted in the notice of allegations, but the illicit payments exchanged match what was outlined for the three individuals in testimony and documents in the October 2018 trials.
Here are the most noteworthy allegations against Self and Townsend, outlined in the NCAA’s notice:
• Gassnola engaged in impermissible recruiting contact with Preston or his mother, Nicole Player, during Preston's official visit to KU during the program's Late Night in the Phog event in October 2016. Self was aware Gassnola, then an outside consultant for Adidas, had impermissible interactions with prospective student-athletes and their families.
• Townsend contacted former KU coach Larry Brown to express his interest in recruiting De Sousa. After impermissible contact with De Sousa's guardian, Fenny Falmagne, Brown told Townsend that Falmagne requested sponsorship to outfit a nonscholastic basketball team. Townsend didn't report this incident to the KU compliance staff.
• Gassnola provided $15,000 to a family friend of Ayton, and after Ayton enrolled at Arizona, Gassnola communicated in a text message to Self that he had let the head coach down in the recruitment of Ayton.
Gassnola testified he gave $89,000 to Player to secure the commitment of Preston, who was withheld from competition during his lone season (2017-18) and never played a game for the Jayhawks. De Sousa, whose guardian allegedly received $2,500 from Gassnola with another $20,000 payment scheduled but never completed, joined the Jayhawks midway through that same campaign and helped KU reach the Final Four. He was ruled ineligible and missed his sophomore year but remained with the team in the offseason and is currently a junior forward.
"The University acknowledges that the evidence supports finding that most of the alleged contacts, payments, or promised payments occurred," the response read. "However, as the federal criminal jury found, the payments and promised payments were concealed from the University. Further, the credible and persuasive evidence establishes that Adidas, Gassnola, and Gatto were not representatives of the University's athletics interests at the times of these events. Accordingly, the Panel should find no institutional violations pursuant to any of these allegations."
In its overview, KU highlights four areas of dispute with the NCAA’s findings: Adidas as a representative of KU Athletics’ interests; a former head coach, in this case Brown, being positioned as a representative of the program for life; Self’s supposed knowledge of what was unfolding; and the university’s failure to sufficiently monitor the men’s basketball program.
On Adidas serving as a representative of KU’s interests, the university asserts that former employees of the apparel giant "acted in their own interests," with sworn testimony making it clear they went "to great lengths to conceal their activities" from KU and its basketball staff.
KU says evidence reveals the university "could not have reasonably known" about Adidas’ meddling, attacking the NCAA for using a "never before alleged theory" that a corporate sponsor and all of its employees are representatives of an institution’s athletics interests.
"This theory, if adopted by the Panel, would have far reaching ramifications throughout the Membership given the universal use of corporate sponsorships throughout Division I athletics," the response read.
Secondly, on Brown, KU noted he hasn’t served as the Jayhawk head coach for 30 years and has never donated to the school’s athletics program. KU labeled Brown’s conversations with coaches as "casual and innocuous" discussions between friends.
"He was never asked to recruit on behalf of Kansas nor did he," the response read. "Yet here again, the enforcement staff asserts a novel theory — that a head coach becomes a representative of an institution for life — a contention that has no basis in NCAA legislation, case precedent, official interpretation or educational materials."
Discussing Self, KU says there’s "no reasonable conclusion" that the head coach nor any member of the university knew or should have known about any potential NCAA violations.
"[V]oluminous evidence demonstrates uncontestably that Coach Self did, in fact, promote an atmosphere of compliance and fully monitor his staff," the response read. "The charges leveled against Coach Self are not based on fact."
Finally, KU tackled the charge that it failed to monitor the men’s basketball program, saying it "strongly disagrees" with the "misguided" notion.
"Kansas has one of the strongest compliance programs in the nation and it has been recognized by its peers nationally for its work," the response read. "In addition, throughout the infractions process, Kansas has fully cooperated with the NCAA, participated in interviews, turned over requested materials and otherwise responded to all requests of the enforcement staff."
KU's full response is a 149-page document, while Self's reply is 77 pages and Townsend's 75 pages. An examination of the full contents of those arguments were unavailable at press time Thursday.
The NCAA’s notice of allegations also included two Level II charges against the Jayhawk football program. Those violations, self-reported by the university, acknowledged a noncoaching member of previous head coach David Beaty’s staff had impermissible contact with a Jayhawk player, an allegation KU is using to withhold the $3 million remaining on Beaty’s contract.
A Kansas City Star report last September used public video of practices to show similar violations may have occurred under current head coach Les Miles. That led to the NCAA amending its notice of allegations in January to add those incidents as Level III violations.
KU and Beaty are in an ongoing legal dispute over the remainder of his contract.
"All of the football allegations were discovered and self-reported by the University, and the University accepts responsibility for the violations," the response read. "The most severe football-related Level II allegations took place under the former head coach and his staff."
Self, who in September said the notice of allegations were based on a "false narrative," added Wednesday following the top-ranked Jayhawks’ 75-66 home victory over TCU that he doesn’t expect the latest development to become a distraction for either his players or coaching staff.
"I haven’t let that bog me down as a distraction and it certainly won’t moving forward," Self said. "I just look at that as that was something that needed to happen from a mandatory standpoint, but it’s no more than what we knew it was three or four months ago. It’s just the next play."