INDIANAPOLIS -- The NCAA called it the "Enforcement Experience" like it was an Epcot attraction.
First thought? It wouldn't be the first time the words "Mickey Mouse" were attached to the association's mysterious investigative process.
But give the monolithic organization credit. It tried to be a little less monolithic this week by inviting two dozen or so media members to Indy to share how its (punitive) sausage is made.
|Boise State's violations would appear to be minor, but Chris Petersen's program was hit with major penalties. (Getty Images)|
That's why we attended -- for a few answers. All the NCAA can do is try to be more transparent, a mandate from president Mark Emmert. Tuesday was a revealing look at that enforcement process, complete with enough potty breaks to guard against lack of constitutional control. At the end of the day, we sentenced a make-believe school to made-up penalties after a mock infractions hearing based largely, it seemed, on hearsay. That was the most realistic part of the process.
Our case had to do with "Coach Smith" at State U., who allegedly funneled test answers to four of his football players. Smith eventually was sanctioned by the infractions committee (us) after being fired by the school, but without a smoking gun to tie it all together. There was an answer key the players used to cheat that a former girlfriend of one of them told the NCAA she had seen. We never saw it. What was left was only circumstantial evidence. All four players achieved their highest semester grade in that Sociology of Sports class. The testimony was basically split among the four.
How would you feel if your livelihood was ruined without evidence you could hold in your hand? That's why our group of five mock enforcement officers (real-life media hacks) voted 3-2 against making a formal allegation. The majority of the other participants disagreed, meaning the "Experience" would proceed beyond one potty break.
Enforcement's real world is a strange enough place. Former USC running backs coach Todd McNair will never work again in college if an NCAA ruling isn't overturned by some court. Convicted felon Lloyd Lake told the NCAA, "He [McNair] knew" that the coach was aware Reggie Bush was taking money and benefits from Lake and a partner. Asked how he knew, Lake told the NCAA, "'Cause he was around a lot ..."
Read the record, and everything else -- similar to Coach Smith's case -- is circumstantial. It resulted in McNair, like Smith, being slapped with an unethical conduct charge by the NCAA. That's the association's scarlet letter. The charge makes a respected eight-year NFL veteran essentially unable to be hired at the college level. That's why McNair intends to sue the association after losing his appeal.
The NCAA seemingly didn't need Lake to nail McNair to make its case against USC. Lake has done jail time and reportedly is tied to numerous felonies. Based on such thin evidence as well as credibility issues with the witness, doesn't the NCAA need a higher standard if it is going to ruin someone's career?
"The reality is ... some of the issues that we're investigating involved people that don't have a pristine record, that are in a different world than most of us," said Julie Roe Lach, the association's vice president for enforcement. "For that reason we're going to deal with people who are doing illegal activity. That's just the nature of the recruiting business right now."
Unsavory characters (prisoners, felons, etc.) are also used in real-world court cases. The difference there is a presumption of innocence for the accused. There are cross-examinations, witnesses and either a judge or jury to decide guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The NCAA standard for conviction is much lower. Infractions hearings are more like civil cases -- administrative as opposed to criminal -- where only "clear and convincing evidence" is needed. That's according to former infractions committee chair Jo Potuto, a bulldog in the hearing room, judging by Tuesday, and a Nebraska law professor outside of it.
That lack of true due process paints the NCAA into a PR corner. We already know the public doesn't understand the process. It really doesn't understand when the NCAA doesn't have subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify.
The public relations battle can't be won with one seven-hour session. Maybe the simple takeaway is that the enforcement staff is made up of decent, honest -- maybe a bit geeky -- folks who do their extremely complicated jobs well.
|More on College Football|
Given what's in the clause that allowed the suspended Buckeyes to play in the Sugar Bowl, the committee got it wrong. Read >>
"I usually get all tingly inside when I talk about the NCAA interview requirements," said Chris Strobel, a director of enforcement, "but I'll try to control myself."
Who knew these people had a sense of humor? There was campy humor in video presentations. One witness was coerced into talking because of obnoxious accordion music played by an investigator. One interview was conducted in a bathroom stall. They told us that in the real world, interviews really have gone down in a nursing home, a prison, even a Burger King. They call them "Captain Kirks," boldly going where no one has gone before.
Ameen Najjar, a 49-year-old director of enforcement, was convincing as an indignant Coach Smith in front of the committee. Ignore his baldness and it was easy to squint and imagine Tressel in the same position on Aug. 12, when Ohio State gets its day in front of the infractions committee.
Team Enforcement can't help it if they're caught up in one of the worst-perceived aspects of college sports. To change that perception, the NCAA is in the early stages of admitting there is a problem with how it is viewed. Early in the day we were reminded there is not selective enforcement. (The old line: The NCAA was so mad at Kentucky, it hammered Cleveland State.) Perhaps not, but there is a financial difference in the way schools are able to defend themselves. Ohio State, with a huge compliance department, probably has an advantage over, say, Boise State.
One school might eventually keep its coach despite a coverup that resulted in six players competing while ineligible. The other already has been charged with lack of institutional control, in part because incoming freshmen were allowed to sleep on teammates' floors.
"The more we can pull back the veil and let people see the inner workings, the better people feel about it," Emmert said. "When something is reported inaccurately because we haven't communicated it well, it's another mess we have to clean up."
The length of cases is getting shorter, about 10 months on average. In 2000, the average case lasted more than four years. There are more folks working on them, about 50 in the enforcement department. Entering his seventh month in office, Emmert reiterated his get-tough stance that was, to be fair, similar to those made by his predecessors when they came into office.
"We need to make sure that our penalty structure and our enforcement process impose a thoughtful level of concern, and even fear, that the cost of violating rules exceeds the benefit," he said.
It is the ultimate open-ended question: When is risk going to outweigh reward? The same organization that hammered USC last year continually reminds us that every infractions committee is different, that it's not fair to compare penalties. In theory, that means the next major violator could get off lightly.
Emmert had to be proud of our little group of faux committee members. We slammed Smith and State U.: three years' probation, the loss of 10 scholarships total over two years, two years of vacated wins and a two-year postseason ban. Smith got a three-year show-cause order, meaning it would be hard for anyone to hire him, which was kind of meaningless. Like McNair, the unethical conduct charge will follow him around for the rest of his career.
Then in a Q&A session, Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel reminded the room that two years ago the (real) committee asked the (real) NCAA board of directors to allow for stronger penalties. Potuto said the committee never got an official answer.
That would qualify as one hell of an incongruous ride at Epcot. Sometimes it's educational to watch the sausage being made. Sometimes it's as ugly as you imagine.
It was fitting that on the way out the door, we were all given a copy of the 434-page NCAA Manual. All that was missing was a pat on the back accompanied by a hearty: "Any other questions you have, it's all in there."