INDIANAPOLIS -- It was only fitting, after more than 10 months of headlines about extra benefits and unethical conduct, failure to monitor and institutional control, that my last field assignment of this tumultuous school year in college sports took me inside an NCAA Committee on Infractions hearing.
Not a real hearing, mind you -- but pretty close. On Tuesday, the NCAA conducted its first Enforcement Experience, a daylong mock exercise that allowed about two dozen media members to investigate, charge and level penalties in a fictional infractions case.
The event largely achieved its intended goal of demystifying and humanizing the complex and controversial infractions process. Throughout the day, we met many of the NCAA's enforcement directors and investigators, who, the public might be shocked to learn, were actual, friendly human beings. One, Joyce Thompson, a seemingly delightful woman, recounted the horror of seeing herself depicted as a cold-blooded interrogator of Michael Oher in The Blind Side. (Shocker: Hollywood took some liberties with real-life events.) Tim Nevius, a bright-eyed young field investigator, served as a facilitator at my group's table, helping us sort through the case like a teacher dissecting an algebra problem.
But understanding something and agreeing with it are two different things. Nothing I saw Tuesday changed my opinion that the entire enforcement process could use a drastic overhaul; that it's saddled by inconsistencies and inefficiency; and that it's too unnecessarily complicated for fans to ever truly understand.
The good news: NCAA president Mark Emmert and vice president of enforcement Julie Roe Lach don't necessarily disagree. In a question-and-answer session at the end of the day, the pair -- both relative newcomers to their posts, taking over late last year -- hinted at a wave of impending changes to the enforcement process.
"We need to make sure our penalty structure and enforcement process imposes a thoughtful level of concern," Emmert said, "and that the cost of violating the rules costs more than not violating them."
I'll have more on that in a bit. First, let's review the sure-to-be controversial findings against "State U."
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The day began with an anonymous tip from a player's ex-girlfriend that she'd seen "Coach Smith" hand out test answers for a sociology class to James and three of his teammates. We soon learned the coach was in cahoots with "Joe Tutor," the son of a former player and a graduate assistant for the class' professor whom the coach had suspiciously hand-picked to tutor the four players -- at the football program's expense. By lunch, Coach Smith and Joe Tutor had been charged with academic fraud and unethical conduct, and State U with lack of institutional control (for allowing the coach to skirt university protocol in hiring his own personal tutor).
The highlight of the day came in the afternoon, when we were given a rare glimpse into the secrecy-cloaked Committee on Infractions hearing, staged in a room configured exactly like the real thing. The NCAA even flew in two former committee members, Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto and Andrea Myers, athletic director emeritus at Indiana State, to grill the accused. Potuto is well known as a fierce judge, and she did not disappoint. The real Coach Smith would have been reduced to tears by the end of her questioning. It was a lot like watching a tense courtroom scene on TV.
Ultimately, the committee agreed with our findings, then handed the proceedings back to the sportswriters to level the penalties. As you can imagine, we frothed at the possibilities. My group hit State U with four years' probation, 16 docked scholarships over two years and a one-year postseason ban. Since-dismissed Coach Smith got a five-year show cause. He was last seen applying for a junior high job.
Yet just a few hours earlier, back in the investigative phase, my group (which included Jon Solomon of The Birmingham News, Ken Tysiac of the Raleigh News & Observer and Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com) nearly deadlocked over whether there was enough evidence to even proceed with the case. The strongest accusations came from two disgruntled former players with an ax to grind (one flunked out, one transferred), and there were a few inconsistencies in their testimony. One current and one former standout (now in the NFL) defended the coach and claimed they were only given "study guides." We had no actual copy of the purported answer key to see for ourselves.
But the professor had caught the tutor copying old exams, and the coach had admitted to steering players to that class because "it was an easy A." All four had scored their highest grades of the quarter there. There was too much smoke.
In a real-life criminal trial, no jury would have found Smith guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." But as Potuto noted (and as former USC running backs coach Todd McNair, the blackballed scapegoat of the Reggie Bush case, recently found out), the committee hearing is NOT a "legal proceeding." Their standard for culpability is merely an accumulation of "clear and convincing evidence." There was more than enough of that.
Meanwhile, despite the fact the violations in question were fairly narrow and the witnesses mostly easy to reach, our fictional case still took 15 months (according to the moderators) from the initial anonymous tip to the committee's final verdict. Give the enforcement folks credit, they're extremely organized, but if I spent as much time preparing for interviews as a reporter as we did in this exercise, I'd only be able to produce three or four stories a year.
When it came time to dole out the punishments, I found it strange and surprising we weren't given any official sentencing guidelines or case precedents. Myers mentioned an unofficial "two-for-one" policy (i.e., two docked scholarships for each player involved in a violation), but said that other factors could override it. While we were given a list of available penalties (scholarships, postseason ban, etc.), we essentially had carte-blanche power to make up whatever numbers or length we deemed fit based on the severity of the crimes -- which in itself is a subjective judgment.
I'm sure State U fans would be drudging up conspiracy theories against us the same way USC fans have the real Infractions Committee.
All told, it's easy to see why the process is so maddening to the average fan. As my fellow participant Seth Davis noted, it takes a master's degree in NCAA compliance just to distinguish between the various groups involved. (Our panel only briefly touched on the Student Athlete Reinstatement staff, which addresses eligibility decisions like Cam Newton's.) Meanwhile, considering how much power they hold, it's bizarre that the faculty members, administrators and attorneys that serve on the Committee on Infractions essentially do so in their spare time ("I stopped reading fiction when I was on the committee, because I got enough interesting reading [material]," Potuto said), and are given such considerable leeway in rendering their decisions. Much like Supreme Court justices, each panelist carries his or her own worldview that may affect how they treat a particular case. And they often render their decisions years after the actual transgressions occurred, in the cloak of secrecy.
This, to me, is the stage of the process in most dire need of a fresh approach, but that's not likely happen given the sanctity with which the committee is held. Instead, Emmert and Lach are focusing their efforts on the enforcement staff, which, while upbeat and diligent, are ultimately overstretched and limited (there are only 38 of them). Emmert said: "We've already made a commitment to provide enforcement with some more staff. All across the NCAA, we're trying to get people out and about more often."
Lach spent much of her first five months "out and about," meeting with more than 100 university officials around the country to get their opinions on "where our resources need to go" and "what areas we need to be focusing on." She said the staff is in the process of rolling out several changes and "we will be going public with the changes in June."
What those changes might be, she wouldn't say, but here's hoping they involve some sort of streamlining of the process. Emmert expressed his own opinion that he'd like to see a new classification system beyond the generalized "major" and "secondary" violations, the latter of which are reported by school compliance officials and number in the thousands per year.
"I do worry we have too much of a bivariate model," he said. "I personally would like to see whether we can have two, three or five different sort of categories and maybe that would make the cases go a little more expeditiously."
Not to put words in his mouth, but perhaps Emmert would agree that when Ohio State's head coach orchestrates a cover-up of rules violations by his players, it should fall under a different umbrella than Boise State football players impermissibly sleeping on floors. As it is, both cases will go before the Committee on Infractions, which means many months and thousands of pages of reading for committee members before reaching a resolution.
Call me crazy, but wouldn't it behoove the schools and the NCAA to better empower those enforcement staffers in Indy? They already do most of the legwork; let them make more of the final decisions. Leave only the most serious high-profile cases to the Committee. It would allow for quicker decisions and more logical allocation of staffers.
Heck, appoint a czar of discipline to render swifter, more consistent penalties. Even better, make them specific to each sport. And, it goes without saying, devote the overwhelming majority of enforcement resources to football and men's basketball. Yes, volleyball and soccer teams should be entitled to equal playing fields, too, but the amount of money and exposure at stake for the two biggies demands more vigilant oversight.
But what do I know? I only worked in NCAA enforcement for seven hours. And at one point in the day, I was almost ready to let Joe Tutor slide.
Imagine if that had happened in real life. Imagine if the details of the State U sociology scandal had already leaked to the media or the message boards, only to never see the light of day. Fans of opposing teams would be livid. Once again, they would say, the NCAA has shown its bias.
They must be a bunch of Tech U fans.