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The NCAA Enforcement Experience: Are We Getting It Yet?

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Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, has no power over rules enforcement.
Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, has no power over rules enforcement.

Seth Davis has an important article today describing his involvement with what the NCAA called "The NCAA Enforcement Experience."  This name reminds me very much of "Star Trek:  The Experience" that was for years part of the Las Vegas Hilton.  But I digress.

The NCAA Enforcement Experience is an attempt by the NCAA to expose reporters to the enforcement process, its complexities, and how it works.  It is an effort to foster understanding and transparency about NCAA procedures, particularly to those who report the news about its activities to the public.  It is very similar in intent to the NCAA mock selection committee exercise that have recently been put on for members of the media by the NCAA in an attempt to help those who report on the tournament better understand the difficulties and intricacies of its workings.

The reason this article is important (for those who will take it at face value, anyway) is that we finally have a reporter reveal an understanding of what the NCAA actually is.  Davis lists his six big takeaways from his participation with this tutorial series of seminars and exercises, and one that everyone should take note of is this one:

2) There is no "NCAA."

Ask yourself this: When your favorite radio host rails against the injustice or incompetence perpetrated by "the NCAA," whom is he talking about?

Is it the investigative team that makes up the NCAA's enforcement staff? Perhaps. That would be the team of 38 paid employees who work out of the NCAA's headquarters in Indianapolis. (Emmert said he wants to significantly add to the staff.) Those are the folks who field tips, marshal resources, conduct investigations and submit their findings. So if this were a criminal case (which it's not; more on that later), think of the enforcement staff as the police, the detectives and the prosecuting attorneys, all rolled into one.


But whether the radio host knows it or not, when he complains about "the NCAA," what he's really complaining about are the schools themselves. More than anything else, the schools are the NCAA. This is, after all, an association, and it is run by the membership. The schools are the ones who set up the enforcement process and provide parameters for the people who run it. So if there are problems with how this process is carried out -- and we all know there are -- only the schools can change them. [Emphasis mine]

This is a point I have been trying to make for a long time, and it seems that so many people think of the NCAA as some remote, rich, tiny group of elitists who pull the strings on poor, helpless universities like some kind of neo-Corleone family.  That just isn't so.  To put it bluntly, Kentucky fans, the NCAA "R" us, that is, our favorite university, along with Eastern, Western, Louisville, North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, and every other NCAA member university.

It's nice to be able to point the finger at the bad guys, but in this case, there simply are none.  President Mark Emmert has no power over enforcement, he is mostly a bureaucrat who tries to manage the common functions of the association, which by the way, is completely voluntary.  Oh, Emmert makes news and can propose policy and affect the tone of the NCAA in the press, but the member institutions must approve any recommendations or proposals that he might come up with, member institutions like the aforementioned.

This is not a defense of the NCAA, or some of the wrong policies it creates and enforces.  To the contrary, what this is is an effort to educate those who want to blame the NCAA boogeyman for all these things that the target of their ire is ... well, every college and university that is a member.  They all have to sign off on these crazy rules, and criteria under which they are implemented and enforced.

Another fascinating takeaway was the mock enforcement action that the media guys were involved in.  These included mostly the "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" media guys who frequently assail "The NCAA" for not being tough enough on rules violators.  Yet when given the chance to act as an enforcement staff in a mock enforcement action, this was Davis' "A-ha! moment:"

4) This stuff is hard.

Most of the writers in the room (myself included) have at some point harshly criticized the NCAA for letting wrongdoers off too easy. But when we were presented with evidence in our mock case and asked whether it warranted an allegation of academic fraud against the most obviously culpable character -- who was an academic tutor, not even a player or coach -- just 60 percent of us said yes. Pretty close call.

Yet, a few hours later we found ourselves debating whether to give the university a one- or two-year postseason ban. That's quite a turnaround in less than a day. Ironically, it turned out that the media was the group that was way too lenient.

Which goes to show how much easier it is to lob grenades from behind the safety of a laptop than actually sit in those chairs and make decisions of consequence. During Tuesday's exercise, I often thought of Tom Cruise's line from A Few Good Men: "It doesn't matter what I know. What matters is what I can prove." It is no simple task to prove wrongdoing, but that is what the enforcement folks are asked to do each and every day. Better them than me.

This surprises me not at all.  Everyone thinks they have the wisdom of Solomon until it comes time to actually take up that sword and cleave the baby in twain, a decision even Solomon didn't have to face.  I think that Davis' use of the quote from A Few Good Men is incredibly apropos.  It is easy to lob grenades at the NCAA from the comfort of my computer desk -- after all, I have no skin in the game except for a bit of fanhood.

In the end, I doubt that this will do much to improve the perception of the NCAA among the general public right away, but it may eventually force the media to take a more balanced approach before they jump in, guns blazing at an organization that so many don't even understand.

Think about it for a second -- if somebody asked you what you did for a living, would "I work for the NCAA" jump right to your lips with pride, considering how widely reviled and even hated "The NCAA" is?  Talk about your thankless jobs -- tax collectors probably have a better general reputation.

This was good work by Seth Davis.  I hope it helps educate people a little, and possibly incline them to think rather than reflexively attack the hired guns of the NCAA whenever some weird-looking pronouncement comes out.  None of this is meant as a defense of bad decisions or apparently logic-free rulemaking and enforcement, but it's important to note that the rules are made by none other than our wonderful colleges and universities themselves, including our favorite one in Lexington.

Some might say they collectively did a lousy job.