Why the NCAA won't police itself
My bracket was busted on the first couple days of the tournament, but that’s not the reason I’m switching allegiances. With only four teams remaining in the men’s NCAA tournament, I know who I’m going for: the University of Connecticut Hustlers – er, I mean, Huskies. Until NCAA officials yank their heads from the sand, they deserve to deal with Heisman winners on the take, bowl champions with deep funding and Final Four teams who accept the NCAA’s rulebook for what it really is: an idle threat.
Let’s begin with an analogy:
In the city limits, Baltimore has more than 600,000 residents. To police this population the Baltimore Police Department employs more than 3,000 officers.
The NCAA oversees nearly 400,000 student-athletes. To police this population, the NCAA employs fewer investigators than Mayberry.
No, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it does speak to the NCAA’s priorities. We know the NCAA likes coming up with rules, they’ve just shown little interest in actually enforcing them.
It reminds me of the classic Seinfeld scene in which Jerry derides the rental-car agent: “You know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation and that's really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.”
The way the NCAA chooses to divert its resources tells us exactly how much interest it has in enforcing its own rules.
By the last count I heard, the NCAA, which brings in more than a half-billion dollars in revenue each year, employed just three full-time investigators and about two dozen others who are used on a contract basis. This is a small part of the reason why the NCAA never unearths any wrongdoing. It waits for the news media (lately, Yahoo Sports), to force them into action.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo's esteemed sports columnist and one of the two journalists who broke the UConn story (the other reporter was Adrian Wojnarowski). He says the NCAA uses 20 investigators.
"That isn't nearly enough," Wetzel said in an email this weekend. "They have the resources to do more, but not the will."
It’d all make for a really good sixth season of The Wire, where we’d find a group of men and women eager to bend the rules because another group of men and women see no incentive to enforce them.
Instead, the NCAA is more concerned with making sure kids don't get free T-shirts or rides home from practice. They make sure the bars and restaurants surrounding their tournament sites don’t use their logo and they make damn sure reporters on press row drink from an NCAA-sanctioned paper cup. The truth is, it’d cost the circus too much money in lost revenue if it ever punished one of its clowns.
So why doesn’t the NCAA police its schools better? The general explanation is money, but the simple answer is resources. A couple of investigators might be able to handle the Missouri Valley, but not all 300 member schools. So the real question is why doesn’t the NCAA invest more in the enforcement of its rulebook? Again, the answer is probably simple: It goes against the NCAA’s self-interests.
Forget the non-profit status, the NCAA is a business. And coming down hard on its member schools – particularly those from BCS conferences – is effectively pinching the NCAA’s revenue streams.
The system is one giant conflict of interest. It’s a kangaroo court of blindfolded marsupials. The infractions committee are made up of presidents from the member institutions. Punishing its member schools directly impacts the NCAA’s own pocketbooks. And exposing wrongdoing undermines the sanctity of competition and the farce that is the NCAA’s “amateur” status.
They don't want to find cheating; and when they do, they'd prefer not to acknowledge it.
I keep coming back to the mess at USC, another litany of wrongdoings unearthed by Yahoo. Granted, a public university such as UConn is different than a private institution like USC. (When public money is involved, an institution really has no choice but to investigate itself.) The case against Reggie Bush -- and by extension USC -- was so damning, complete with bank statements and audio recordings. But here we are, nearly three years later and the NCAA has still taken no action.
Here’s why the UConn case will be different (and why it won’t): The NCAA is very interested in setting precedents. UConn laughed at the NCAA’s rules, skirted those rules and ultimately illustrated why the rules are inadequate. You can bet that the NCAA’s challenge now will be to use UConn to set a precedent while punishing them as lightly as possible.
UConn will do what cheating schools do: They investigate themselves and then recommend a slap on the wrist. Of course, no school will investigate unless someone has the goods on them. They’re not worried about the NCAA, but if a reporter has a source or some paperwork, then it's time to come (partially) clean. Unlike the NCAA, the schools will generally outsource the investigation, so there’s at least the illusion of impartiality. (For example, UCF just paid $60,000 to have its football program investigated third-party. No major problems were found.)
It’s such a joke of a process, akin to a rich father punishing his kid for breaking curfew. Dad doesn't want to come down too hard because the kid is the family and why rock the boat? So to avoid being grounded a month, the kid says, “My bad, Pops. You should ground me for a week.” Problem solved.
(Another reason USC is still whistling Disney songs: As a private school, their records are protected and they felt no need to self-investigate. They asked the Pac-10 to investigate. Still waiting on those results…)
Another thing to keep in mind and a reason to keep a close eye on Tallahassee the next several months, where school officials are ready to go to war to make sure Bobby Bowden achieves sainthood: If a school doesn’t like its punishment, it has recourse. A child might pout, but it has no choice but to accept its punishment. A university? It can sue. The result, as you can imagine is the NCAA investigators have to think twice before dropping a major punishment on rule-breakers.
Yahoo had the goods on UConn coach Jim Calhoun. The coach even acknowledges he “could have made a mistake.” So how did Calhoun respond? Contrition? No, of course not. He blamed the NCAA, saying its 508-page manual is too big and cumbersome. (Never mind the fact that Calhoun has a staff of employees at the university whose sole job is to deal with compliance questions.)
The truth is, the NCAA shouldn’t be in the investigation business. It should outsource the entire process and pay whatever it costs to bring dignity to the system. It’d be a huge undertaking, sure, but shouldn’t the NCAA be interested in maintaining a fair playing field?
And shouldn’t they be just as interested in enforcing their rules as they are in creating them. Otherwise – 500 pages or 5,000 pages – it’s just another big book collecting dust on the shelf.
Cartoon: Bob Englehart / Hartford Courant