Monday, January 17, 2011

NCAA Enforcement under the spotlight

image Another good job by USA Today’s Steve Wieberg, who is in San Antonio covering the annual NCAA Convention being held there this week. In today’s story, Wieberg applauds the NCAA Enforcement staff’s progress in working with the NFL to round up the bad apples in the sports agent community. The applause is the kind you’d hear at the 18th fairway at Augusta, but at least he’s giving them some props, right?

But on the other hand, he notes the struggles that the division faces in increasing scrutiny of college athletics and exposing rules violators. Wieberg notes the difference in impressions gotten for the two efforts by the league, but he misses the real reason for the chaotic nature of the NCAA’s deliberation and decision-making process in the 2010 football season:

At the behest of president Mark Emmert, the NCAA will work in the next three months to tighten the guidelines and interpretations that controversially gave Auburn quarterback Cam Newton and five Ohio State football players room to finish out their seasons despite findings of wrongdoing. Emmert also has called for a crackdown on academic fraud, which surfaced at North Carolina last year and was another issue tainting Newton's Heisman Trophy and national championship season.

"There is an incredible amount of attention on enforcement issues, for good reason, from our membership and from the media," said Julie Roe Lach, new NCAA vice president of enforcement. "So many issues are coming to light at the same, people think, 'Oh, they're finally doing something.' Actually, we've been working a long time on these issues. It's not a crossroads."

Schools and conferences nonetheless are taking notice.

"Mark is sending the right message," Atlantic Coast associate commissioner Shane Lyons said of the tone set by Emmert at the annual NCAA convention, which ended Saturday. "That's what the membership really needs at this point from the leadership of the NCAA … understanding there's going to be accountability out there."

The Newton and Ohio State decisions have dominated much of the recent conversation, drawing backlash from outside and inside the NCAA. And officials worked through the convention to explain them.

Of course, unless you’ve been living under a rock or simply not following these cases very closely (either is a sin, mind you), the problem is not that the NCAA doesn’t have enough authority in its rule books to punish violators. It’s their patent inability to follow their own damned rules and treat similar cases similarly.

As I pointed out in this space about a month ago, the NCAA’s treatment of the cases  it investigates and how it decides punishment for violations is fatally flawed. That flaw is expressed by Emmert himself, and in virtually every statement, press release or public comments from NCAA officials:

"All these situations are case-specific, so you can't easily or appropriately generalize.”

The NCAA’s “all cases are different” approach is the diametric opposite of order and predictability. In fact, if there’s one thing that’s consistent with the NCAA’s investigative and punitive procedures, it’s that there’s no consistency whatsoever.  It lets offenders develop loopholes where none exist and lets rules get enforced arbitrarily. It’s also opened up a whole new loophole the size of an SEC lineman—the ignorance defense, used by both Newton and the Pryor Gang.

The result is chaos.

Imagine if the criminal justice system were modeled like this, where no two cases are ever treated similarly. No two serial killers would be given life in prison without parole or the death penalty. What about two mob bosses convicted of extortion, money laundering, illegal gambling and drug trafficking? Don’t they both get life in the federal lockup?

Not in the NCAA model. Until the NCAA learns to treat similar cases similarly, the chaos will continue and lead to more WTF moments like the ones that followed the Auburn and Ohio State decisions.

Now granted, the Auburn and Ohio State decisions were both rendered by the Reinstatement Division of the NCAA. The Enforcement Division, which is a completely separate arm of the governing body, handles matters related to institutional wrongdoing. Reinstatement investigated facts provided by Auburn and Ohio State and made eligibility determinations regarding student-athletes based on that information. Whether those decisions led to your own personal WTF moment is irrelevant to this fact: Enforcement conducts a separate investigation into whether the institutions themselves committed rules violations.

Wieberg and most other national sports journalists acknowledge that while Reinstatement might have ruled, Enforcement isn’t through yet. Not by a long shot, and it’s looking more and more like the federal cases winding through the system in Alabama might make this a long, painful process for some fans. Unfortunately, as I pointed out here yesterday, the media in the state of Alabama can’t wrap their heads around that fact yet.

The best step forward that Emmert, Roch and the rest of the NCAA Enforcement gurus can do is develop a set of standard guidelines by which all cases that fall under them are treated similarly. It’s time to install order and predictability, and end the WTF moments produced by the reigning chaos.


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