Guarding the Field

January 18, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS -- Based on a show of hands, fewer than 10 faculty athletics representatives (FARs) who showed up here to a packed session on the role of the FAR in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s enforcement process had ever been involved in or contacted by the NCAA about a major infractions case. But given that some types of violations are on the rise, and that NCAA leaders are in the midst of a crusade to sanitize the association’s image, it’s not surprising that so many FARs, as the representatives are called, are trying to be proactive.

When it comes to persons of interest in news reports about enforcement cases, FARs are not near the top of the list. Those positions are occupied by the football players trading memorabilia for tattoos, the coach breaking rules to get recruits, the programs hiring too many coaches and practicing players too much, and the myriad other perpetrators and missteps.

But the FAR can play an important role in the enforcement process, faculty members and NCAA officials said at last week’s presentation.

A faculty rep's specific duties are determined by the institution where he or she acts as the liaison between the college and its athletics department, but that person is always the institution’s representative, and he or she is expected to be an advocate for academic integrity in sports in conference and NCAA affairs. Many, particularly in Divisions I and II, receive compensation for their duties, be it a monetary payment, release time (which is most common, followed by payment), game tickets or other athletics swag, or simple recognition. (Questions have occasionally been raised about whether FARs are too cozy with athletic departments, and don't serve the mission for which they were intended.)

The best thing a FAR can do to prevent an NCAA investigator from having reason to visit (or protect the institution should an investigator come knocking) is put in place the “four pillars” of institutional control, said Laura Wurtz McNab, the association’s assistant director of enforcement: strong institutional education about NCAA regulations; knowledge of the association’s rules, education efforts and opportunities; allocation of resources to compliance and rules monitoring; and active enforcement and self-reporting of violations.

Lack of institutional control is the most serious charge a college can face. The NCAA assesses institutional control based on the policies and procedures a college has in place and whether they’re being monitored and enforced. For that charge and its slightly less serious counterpart, failure to monitor, the faculty representative at an institution under investigation will consult with the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, and probably the college itself, about whether the institution is at fault. Divisions I and III also require the FAR to attend and respond to questions at the infractions hearing with other institutional, athletics and NCAA officials, regardless of his or her involvement in the violations.

“It is not fun to be on this side or the other side, to call this institution and say, ‘I need to show up on campus and do a series of interviews with individuals due to violations on campus,' ” Wurtz McNab said. “If you have those [four pillars] in place, then you have nothing to worry about when you’re answering the questions, other than, could you have done a better job?”

David Clough, FAR at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says he could point to the very spot of carpet in the New Zealand hotel where he was standing when he got the call saying that Colorado was being charged with violations. The institution had self-reported the case in 2005 -- the same year Clough became an FAR -- saying that walk-on football players had received discounted training table meals. Based on the number of athletes involved (133), the number of years during which violations occurred and the total cost of the extra benefits (nearly $62,000), the NCAA upped the infractions case to “major.” As punishment, Colorado received public reprimand and censure, two years’ probation, football scholarship reductions (one each year for three years) and fines of $100,000.

Clough eagerly took on his duties as FAR, but said he could have benefited if people had been more forthcoming during the investigation.

“We represent institutions and chancellors or presidents in institutional responsibility for athletics and institutional control of athletics. We are direct representatives of that, so that mandates the involvement, I believe,” Clough said. “It’s important in my mind to have a road map … that defines the involvement of the FAR in the procedure dealing with violations of NCAA regulations, all the way through.”

Those guidelines should include a requirement that the faculty rep be immediately informed when the NCAA tells a college president that it’s going to investigate the institution, Clough said. The FAR might not do anything, but he or she has the prerogative to get involved if necessary, to have a direct line to the president -- and not to be pushed aside by lawyers.

“The FAR may turn out to be somewhat of a counterpart of university counsel, because university counsel has a particular approach to matters like this which have a lot to do with protection of the institution,” Clough said. “As faculty representative, you may bring a different voice to the table, as in … it’s fair for the institution to take its medicine and move on.”

According to a 2011 survey of FARs, the majority of institutions do write up a formal position description -- but how big a majority depends on the level at which the college competes. About 85 percent of Division I institutions have position descriptions, but about 15 percent fewer have them at the Division II level. In Division III, just over 50 percent have them.

However, the same survey revealed that the extent to which faculty representatives feel empowered varies; in general, the higher the division, the happier the FAR. On average, 87 percent are satisfied with their athletics departments, compared to only 53 percent satisfaction with faculty governance. (For the latter, the gap between Divisions I and III -- 12 percentage points -- was significantly wider than that of the former – 4 percentage points.)

The Faculty Athletics Representatives Association offers a number of resources to FARs, including sample position descriptions and informational handbooks.

One way for a FAR to increase the likelihood that he or she will be consulted and given authority when a violation does occur, panelists said, is to form relationships with the campus compliance staff through scheduled, periodic meetings, or just by hanging out and making sure you know what’s going on (and showing them you’re there to help, not interfere).

The most important thing is to be prepared ahead of time, panelists said. Wurtz McNab suggested having a written, president-approved policy in place that is regularly reviewed and updated, and includes the consequences of not reporting violations. “That helps you in going forward and doing your interviews,” she said, “and telling people, ‘Listen, this applies to everyone; I’m not picking on you, it’s just that I’m following the policies of the institution.’ ”

Noting that secondary violations -- those that are isolated or inadvertent, and provide minimal advantages to the program that commits them -- occur all the time, one convention attendee asked whether it’s worse for a program find a ton of them and run the risk of them collectively becoming a major violation, or find few and be running a poor monitoring system.

Julie Rochester, an FAR at Northern Michigan University who serves on the Division II Committee on Infractions, said reporting violations is a good thing because it sends the message to the NCAA that you know what’s going on. “The trouble that you get into, though, is when you start to have those same secondaries over and over and over … it becomes a failure to monitor,” Rochester said. But, she added, “I think it’s more of a red flag when you see a school that has zero in 15 years.”

It’s obvious why FARs should familiarize themselves with all these processes and best practices, Rochester said.

“If you think for one minute that if your institution gets involved in an infractions case and that you’re not going to be involved,” she said, “then you’re kidding yourself.”

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