For the most part, I think of the NCAA as the governing body of college sports that not many people think about, but that imposes its will sort of behind the scenes. However, on Thursday the NCAA got slapped around when the verdict in a case regarding a former University of Alabama booster was handed down.
A jury awarded $5 million Thursday to a former University of Alabama football booster who claimed the NCAA defamed him when it imposed penalties on the Crimson Tide in 2002.
The state court jury awarded Ray Keller $3 million in punitive damages, $1 million for mental anguish, $500,000 for economic loss and $500,000 for damage to reputation.
Keller, a timber dealer and fan whom the university severed ties with because of the probe, argued that the NCAA slandered and libeled him during the announcement of penalties by referring to him and others as "rogue boosters," "parasites" and "pariahs."
As with any court case, the NCAA plans to appeal the decision, and it remains to be seen how that goes. Eventhough Keller won his judgment, the damage of the violations that he contributed to still hurt the program.
The recruiting scandal cost Alabama scholarship reductions, a two-year bowl ban and five years of probation that ended earlier this year.
The more curious aspect of the incident that apparently was never resolved was how Keller's name surfaced in connection with the rule violations.
A potentially important question — how Keller’s name became public — wasn’t fully resolved despite three weeks of testimony.
The NCAA referred to Keller only as “athletic representative C” in announcing its findings against Alabama during a news conference. But Keller’s name repeatedly was used by the media, and the university sent Keller a letter telling him to keep clear of Alabama athletics.
Word said Alabama “threw Ray Keller under the bus” to avoid a potential death penalty for football, and the NCAA referred to him and two other boosters as “parasites” and “rogue boosters” who “corrupt athletes and should become pariahs” to other fans.
“These statements are not true about Ray Keller,” said Word.
But Dodd, the NCAA attorney, said Keller violated rules repeatedly and likely made his own name public by being a confidential source for reporter Cecil Hurt of The Tuscaloosa News. Keller co-signed loans for Hurt and sometimes fed him information, Dodd said.
Tuscaloosa News executive editor Doug Ray declined comment on whether Keller was a source for the newspaper.
So, the question as to whether Alabama made a "secret deal" with the NCAA to try and avoid heavy sanctions will probably never be answered. And we'll probably never know exactly how Keller's name became public. However, I do have a feeling that things like this occur involving major college football programs around the country much more often than the public is ever aware of.