INDIANAPOLIS — The National Collegiate Athletic Association's enforcement division and Committee on Infractions are shrouded in secrecy. The former's lengthy investigations into possible rules violations and the latter's complex deliberations over whether a member institution and its athletes actually perpetrated them are ultimately condensed into a wordy public report and a brief press conference.
Then, after a case is closed and sanctions have been levied, the NCAA and many of those involved in the case are typically silent on the matter, revealing little about the process or the rationale behind their actions. This reticence feeds rampant speculation among fans and critics, who argue that the NCAA is selective, biased or unfair in enforcing its rules. The NCAA’s handling of a number of high-profile cases in the past year has only exacerbated this thinking.
Tuesday, the NCAA set out to demystify what its officials admit is a complicated and often misunderstood process by asking more than 30 members of the news media — including this reporter — to participate in a mock enforcement exercise in which participants assumed the role of an NCAA investigator and later a member of the Committee on Infractions for a fictitious case. The multi-month process was condensed into a six-hour presentation. But, otherwise, NCAA officials said the anonymous tip that kicked off the event and the ensuing investigation that reporters experienced throughout the day very closely resembled how cases proceed in real life.
Though it has done so for college athletics employees, this is the first time the NCAA has played host to such a mock enforcement presentation for reporters. Julie Roe Lach, the NCAA’s vice president for enforcement, said the rationale for the event was to “educate critics and give them a better understanding of the process.” And though some sports reporters wrote well before the event that they found “condescending” the assumption that those criticizing the NCAA are uneducated about its processes, others said they applauded the NCAA’s “attempt at transparency,” even if the event did not entirely demystify the enforcement and infractions process.
At the start of the event, Lach did confront what she saw as some of the “common misconceptions” about the NCAA, such as the assumption that it plays favorites with certain athletics programs. To state her case, she cited a well-circulated quote by Jerry Tarkanian, legendary men’s basketball coach at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas: "The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it will probably slap another two years' probation on Cleveland State."
Mark Emmert, the NCAA's president, also told reporters that enforcement cases often have a high level of “ambiguity and nuance,” and that broad generalizations about them are risky. Still, he admitted that the NCAA needs to do a better job explaining the process and the rationale behind its decisions than it has in the past.
The event started with the receipt of an anonymous tip. The ex-girlfriend of a football player at “State University” alleged that her boyfriend and three of his teammates had been given the answers to tests in a class they were directed to take by their head coach and team tutor. (The presentation and workbook given to reporters at the event, which include the details of the mock case, are available for download via Inside Higher Ed’s website.)
After determining that the evidence from this anonymous tipster was credible enough to warrant further investigation, participants were then asked whom they would interview and what documents they would request to explore the case. NCAA officials noted that, at this and other points in the process, they have to make decisions that will best preclude those suspected in the case from colluding on their stories and distorting the facts of the case.
They also noted that, while it is important to recognize that a source may have “an axe to grind” against a coach or an athletics program in making an allegation, this does not necessarily deter the NCAA from pursuing a case. Still, no information provided by confidential or off-the-record sources can be used in an investigation against an institution. Such tips must be corroborated by other sources before use.
Once details of the investigation were given to participants, they were asked whether they thought they had enough evidence to pursue certain charges — academic fraud on the part of the coach, tutor and athletes; providing false and misleading information during an investigation on the part of the coach and tutor; and lack of institutional control or failure to monitor on the part of “State University.” NCAA officials noted that enforcement staffers prefer to bring forth formal allegations against an institution to the Committee on Infractions only if there is a high likelihood of the committee concluding that a violation occurred and eventually levying a penalty.
Finally, participants witnessed a mock Committee on Infractions hearing in which NCAA staffers portrayed university officials, the dismissed head football coach and their relevant lawyers. To ramp up the realism of the hearing, a stenographer was present and Josephine Potuto, a former longtime chair of the Committee on Infractions — and a faculty athletics representative and constitutional law professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln — presided. Potuto, who some in the room noted had a reputation as being “tough as nails” on the committee, pressured the actors to answer questions relating to the facts of the case with gusto.
After witnessing the hearing, participants gathered in groups and were asked to hand down penalties for those involved. This reporter’s group demanded that "State University" serve a five-year probation, trim four football scholarships for the upcoming season and vacate all wins in which the four cheating athletes participated. In addition, the head coach and tutor were hit with five-year “show cause” penalties, essentially preventing them from working in college athletics for that period. There was some difference of opinion among groups as to the severity of the penalties, and Potuto even weighed in with how she would have ruled in the fictitious case.
Playing off of that difference of opinion, Emmert noted that there is often a similar lack of unanimity among the members of the Committee on Infractions during their deliberations. This, however, is rarely made public, as all the committee's decisions are handed down by the committee as a group and only the chair makes comments to reporters.
Ultimately, though, Emmert told reporters he would push for further transparency during his term at the helm of the NCAA. He also noted that he would like to further “step up” the NCAA’s enforcement process to catch more improprieties before they develop into major issues. He offered no specific examples about what this means for the future of the NCAA, but hinted that his administration would consider revamping the penalty structure in the near future to provide “more appropriate” punishment for major infractions.
As if on cue with Emmert’s exhortations that the NCAA wants to “pull back the curtain” on the enforcement and infractions process, many sports reporters live-tweeted their impressions of the mock enforcement exercise right from NCAA headquarters. There was certainly enough entertainment value for the reporters to comment on. Early in the day, Pat Forde, ESPN columnist, tweeted: "I can tell you this much from Mock Enforcement Minicamp: State U is in trrrrrouble." And later, Dan Wetzel, reporter for Yahoo Sports, wryly tweeted: “Best thing learned at NCAA ‘enforcement experience’? That 80 percent of coaches cry during infractions hearing.”
Still, when reporters asked NCAA officials if they would ever consider opening up Committee on Infractions hearings to the public, NCAA officials retreated, noting that they did not want sources to clam up and worried about putting institutions in a difficult situation before they were truly found to have committed a violation. After all, the NCAA is a membership organization and, even when they are under scrutiny, institutions brought before the committee are still members.