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Dan K. Thomasson: NCAA can't shake arbitrary enforcement

With America’s elite college football teams closing in on the playoffs to determine a national champion and a new race to basketball’s March Madness about to begin, the burning question should be who is in charge of keeping the huge fortune the two events produce out of the hands of cheaters?

Dan K. Thomasson | Tribune News Service

For more than three quarters of a century, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has ruled major college sports with an iron fist, clamping down on any hint of scandal that might taint the association and its member schools ... and damage the money flow.

At times, the NCAA’s legendary gum shoe committee has seemed to have taken its duty to preserve purity to the point of absurdity, penalizing its members for trivial infractions of its Byzantine book of rules — so large now, it has become a lawyer’s dream or nightmare, whichever side you’re on. You can’t give that recruit a baseball cap, T-shirt, etc., or your best player is suspended for appearing fully clothed on a calendar that was being sold for charity by a sorority, which actually occurred.

Often it seemed to observers that there was an unholy selectivity to the association’s punishments. In other words, schools that were the most successful in pursuit of records and the revenue they produce were somehow less likely to be sanctioned. It has taken a long time for the University of Louisville and its famous former basketball coach, Rick Pitino, to fall, although his program — and his personal — indiscretions were common knowledge for years.

The shadow of scandal and prosecution now hovers over the new basketball season.

The late UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, once said only half in jest, “that the NCAA is so mad at Kentucky it probably will tack another two years (sanctions) on Cleveland State.”

While there has been no solid proof to back up these allegations of favoritism, there obviously is plenty of circumstantial evidence. And the NCAA’s decision not to pursue a horrendous breach of academic propriety by the University of North Carolina almost puts a rubber stamp of authenticity to the claims.

By not doing so, any credibility the governing body has left may have been lost forever. If you are unaware, UNC had given academic credit to favored groups for what it at one time admitted was a phony course. While some of those who took the non-existent course or courses weren’t athletes, at least 50 percent to 60 percent were _ including football and basketball stars. The excuse the NCAA gave with a straight face was that since there were non-athletes also benefiting, discipline was not an alternative (or some such inane jibber jabber) and that since the school told the NCAA that it was an accredited course telling a national accreditation committee that it wasn’t, the NCAA had no jurisdiction. Meanwhile the accreditation folks reportedly have reopened their investigation.

By the way, UNC is again listed in preseason basketball polls as expected to be one of the nation’s top 10 programs with a head start on another March triumph. Ca-Ching!

Is Walter Byers — the Torquemada who built the NCAA and often used a sledgehammer to slap a wrist — whirring in his grave? Probably. Byers was the unforgiving crusader and self-appointed arbiter of all things legitimate and ethical in the world of big-time college athletics. Back in the 1950s he was the most feared name in sports. Well, whirl away, Walter. Your beloved institution, which you even came to see was out of hand, has gone from bad to “badder” as money considerations increasingly drive the college sports engine. UNC’s reputation as the oldest public university in the nation and certainly one of its best academically has been severely tarnished thanks to the relentless, Pulitzer prize-deserving reporting of the Raleigh News and Observer.

I was instantly reminded of an incident a number of years ago when I found myself at a white-tie Washington function with several other people who had discovered a place where a TV was showing a regional final of the basketball tournament that included UNC. We were all strangers, but I said to no one in particular that I would feel better about the whole thing when the NCAA sanctions UNC, even then just a little too good every year to be on the right side of legitimacy.

“I certainly hope that doesn’t happen,” the man standing next to me said. “I’m the governor of North Carolina.”

Well, rest easy, sir. It hasn’t.

Trudy Rubin: Are we betting on the wrong prince?

Have President Trump and his son-in-law bet their entire Mideast policy on a reckless 32-year-old Saudi crown prince who is getting in over his head?

Trudy Rubin | The Philadelphia Inquirer

That’s the question that should grab Americans as we watch the wild game of thrones playing out in Saudi Arabia, where, last week, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) arrested 11 princes along with an additional 190 officials and businessmen. Another prominent prince died in a mysterious helicopter crash.

What’s riveting the Mideast is the degree to which Trump has fully embraced the youthful prince (and his elderly father, King Salman). Who can forget the scenes of the president sword dancing as he was lavishly feted and flattered on a May trip to Riyadh, and promised (unfulfilled) billions in arms deals? Moreover, first son-in-law Jared Kushner, a new buddy of the young prince, has made three trips to Riyadh this year, the latest a secret four-day visit last month.

Trump tweeted, in the midst of his Asia trip: “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. They know exactly what they are doing.” Clearly the purge doesn’t bother a president who admires strongmen.

More to the point, Trump and Kushner appear to be relying on the crown prince to spearhead a Sunni Arab campaign that will roll back Shiite Iran’s expanding influence in the Mideast (and godfather a peace between the Palestinians and Israel). A look at the prince’s track record should have dampened their enthusiasm for MBS.

Sure, Prince Mohammed talks a good game. He says he wants to modernize the kingdom, fight corruption, let women drive, and promote a more moderate form of Islam. That would certainly be a welcome change, since Saudi Arabia’s export of their fundamentalist Wahabi variant of Islam has paved the way for the rise of jihadism around the world.

Yet his roundup of the kingdom’s most prominent businessmen in a kingdom where corruption is endemic looks more like a Putinesque shakedown than a move toward a transparent system. Any seized funds may be used to underwrite MBS’s grandiose scheme to build a new $500 billion high-tech metropolis in the desert called NEOM.

As for moderating the Saudi brand of Islam, that would be a boon to the kingdom and the world. But although some clerics have been arrested, and religious police lectured, the Crown Prince has cracked down as hard or harder on intellectuals and peaceful activists. Indeed, Jamal Khashoggi, the editor of one of the country’s more progressive newspapers, Al Watan, was forced out, after publishing an opinion piece that questioned the austere Saudi form of Islam.

So it appears that Prince Mohammed’s main goal is to solidify power in his hands alone, in a country where kings have long ruled by consensus. Whether he has the judgment to handle that power is questionable.

“In America, you have restraints to keep Trump from impulsive action,” Khashoggi says. “In Saudi Arabia we don’t.” Trump and Kushner should be listening.

MBS’s impulses are most questionable when it comes to his campaign against Tehran, waged all over the region. The Saudi track record vs. Iran is one of unmitigated failure — despite U.S. backing.

Yet this is the campaign Trump and Kushner are counting on the prince to win.

In Syria, President Barack Obama subcontracted to the Saudis to arm and fund Sunni rebels against President Bashar al-Assad. The winner: Assad — backed by Russia airpower and Shiite militiamen directed by Iran.

In Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein the Saudis refused U.S. requests to help Iraqi governments counterbalance Iranian influence. Finally, Riyadh is reaching out to Baghdad, with too little, too late. Iran has heavily penetrated Iraq’s government and security forces.

In neighboring Yemen, just after his father became king, MBS launched a war against Houthi insurgents who had ties to Tehran. The war has dragged on for two years, as Saudi and United Arab Emirates fighter jets bomb civilians relentlessly, with full Trump support and advanced U.S. weapons. Despite thousands of civilian casualties and a humanitarian disaster, it’s clear the Saudis can’t win without an unlikely ground invasion. The longer the war goes on in Yemen, the more the Houthis are bound to Iran.

In Qatar, the Crown Prince launched a blockade of the small, oil-rich Gulf state, supposedly due to Iranian influence. Trump tweeted his strong approval (and is now belatedly trying to undo the damage). The result: Qatar has been pushed closer to Tehran, and the unity of Sunni Gulf Arabs against Tehran has been split.

And, in his latest move vs. Iran, MBS just forced the resignation of Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri, a businessman with close Saudi ties who was summoned to Riyadh and is now being held there. Lebanon now fears a new sectarian civil war.

But it is hard to figure out what the Crown Prince is up to in Lebanon, since the Lebanese government and army are too weak to stand up against Hezbollah, which is armed to the teeth by Iran. The Israeli press is busy speculating that MBS is out to spark another war between Israel and Hezbollah that neither side wants now.

Adam B. Schiff: Web giants should aid Russia probe

As a Californian, I’m proud that our state boasts so many leading technology companies.

Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff is a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee.

As a member of the House Intelligence Committee leading an investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, I need the assistance of those same companies in our investigation so that together we can protect future elections from foreign influence.

In January, the Intelligence Community assessed that the Russians’ sophisticated campaign was designed to help Donald Trump, damage Hillary Clinton and sow discord in our democracy by following a playbook that Russia has honed for years in Europe, and which is known in intelligence circles as “Active Measures.”

Russia’s most visible intervention was through the hacking of the Democratic Party institutions and the email account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which allowed Moscow to steal documents and emails that it then leaked through cut-outs including WikiLeaks.

Less obviously, Russia waged an insidious campaign online, manipulating open internet platforms to inflame partisan and societal tensions and spreading disinformation through a variety of channels.

Russia interfered to benefit Trump in the 2016 election, but the Kremlin’s goals were more expansive than tipping a single election. Putin sought – and seeks still – to weaken us from within by exploiting and exacerbating existing political, religious and racial fissures in our society.

Recently, our committee held a hearing with Facebook, Twitter and Google as part of our effort to understand the extent of Russia’s activities on these platforms. The testimony of these three companies made clear that the Russian effort was extensive, and offered reason to believe that what we now know may be just the tip of the iceberg.

Facebook was the earliest of the three companies to identify and report Russian activity on its platform, disclosing to the committee that an estimated 126 million American users saw content posted on fake pages linked to a notorious Russian “troll” farm. Facebook also identified more than 3,000 Russian-created advertisements that more than 11 million Facebook users saw.

These ads, which the committee is working to make public, promoted phony pages that spoofed causes ranging from “Black Lives Matter,” to anti-immigration activism, to LGBT rights, to pro-Confederacy sentiments.

Twitter also reported significant activity linked to Russia, including more than 30,000 Russian-linked bot accounts generating in excess of 1 million tweets seen by almost 300 million people worldwide. Additionally, Twitter identified nearly 3,000 human-coordinated accounts, some of which had thousands of followers and were cited in the media or even retweeted by senior Trump campaign officials during the election season. Google had the least to report, but we know YouTube has been a focus for Russia, with the Kremlin-controlled news organization RT’s channel racking up 5 billion views.

I appreciated the willingness of these three companies to testify and provide us with information, but much more will need to be done. At the hearing, I proposed several steps these firms, and others, can take to be part of the solution.

First, Facebook, Twitter, and Google, as well as other major tech firms, should pool their resources and expertise to undertake a joint investigation to uncover the full extent of Russia’s covert activity on their platforms and present their findings to Congress, and the American people.

Second, they should work with Congress to make public as much Russia-created content as possible, including individual advertisements and posts, so the public can see the breadth of this Russian propaganda. They should also commit to opening – or in some cases reopening – access to data needed by third-party researchers and academics who are working to understand the manipulation of their platforms.

Finally, each of these companies should commit to notifying users who were targeted with what we now know was Russian propaganda. That step would help educate users who were served ads or content generated by Russian trolls and play a part in inoculating them against future influence operations.

As Congress continues its investigation into Russia’s interference, we will need greater and ongoing cooperation from internet companies to understand the full extent of what Russia did, and to protect ourselves from what they may do next time.