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Obstacles abound in compliance efforts

The following story is the second in a four-part series examining how Duke stays compliant within increasingly complex NCAA guidelines. The first part can be found here. The next two parts will run through the rest of the week. The full story will be available on The Chronicle’s website Friday.

Imagining the lost glory days of college football, before scandal and impropriety sullied the sport’s name, is not difficult to do, though many argue that such misbehavior is not new but rather just a product of increased media attention.

There are many avenues by which the shady operators who wreak havoc within college football infiltrate the system. One of the most-trodden paths for these individuals is opened before prospective athletes ever set foot on a college campus.

“It used to be that when you recruited a student-athlete, you went through the coach, and you went through the parent, whether it was a two-parent home or a one-parent home,” Tom Luginbill, national recruiting director for ESPN’s college football scouting service Scouts Inc., said. “And you found out who the decision-maker was…. Now these coaches are being forced to go through a handler or a runner or somebody that’s tied himself to a prospect, and he’s got that kid’s ear. And if you want to recruit him, you’d better go through [the handler]. Coaches don’t want to go through that person.”

With so many players to be recruited, and such strict time frames in which recruiting can take place, coaches have to take advantage of every moment. That can cause problems, because with so many recruits and so many recruiters, it hardly gives coaches the proper time to evaluate a player’s character, which will be primary determinant of a player’s willingness and ability to abide by NCAA rules once he gets to college.

“It’s easy to turn on the tape and see whether a guy can play,” Luginbill said. “The process has become so accelerated that you’re forced to offer people before you’re really truly ready, because you’re not done evaluating them yet. But if you don’t offer them, you’re not going to have a chance to get them. And coaches hate that.”

Coaches wish they had more evaluation time because when players join a program and choose to flaunt the rules, it’s the program that gets punished. Luginbill thinks this may be changing, though. When former Tennessee basketball head coach Bruce Pearl finally acknowledged several rules violations, the NCAA slapped him with a three-year “show-cause penalty.” Tennessee fired Pearl, but the nature of the show-cause penalty means the university will face no sanctions. Rather, the punishment will follow Pearl to his next employer. Any school that hires Pearl will have to “show cause” that it deserves to avoid the application of any penalties to the coach’s new program.

Luginbill said he believes those sorts of sanctions, which punish the violators rather than the institutions that employ them, will become more commonplace. He also said he hopes to see the implementation of penalties that affect only players that opt to break the rules, rather than entire teams.

“We need to start moving away from punishing universities and holding a university and a program hostage for the actions of a few, and start punishing the violators,” he said.

But coaches and players who run afoul of the complex NCAA rulebook are sometimes in good faith when they break the rules. Even a school like Duke, which has avoided any major scrutiny from NCAA investigators, still deals with plenty of infractions.

“We always have secondary minor violations,” Kennedy said. “They’re a function of the complexity of the rules.”

As an example of troublesome rules that cause inadvertent violations, Kennedy referred to the NCAA guidelines that govern the stationery that schools can use for correspondence.

“If you go back and research the history of the rules regarding stationery, it’s comical,” Kennedy said. “Two colors only, no color, one color. No university achievements—yes, you can put university achievements…. So a coach is sitting in his office, and he pulls out a piece of stationery, which was legal eight months ago, and it’s not legal now, and without thinking he sends that off. He’s committed a violation. In what meaningful way is that a violation? And we spend an inordinate amount of time, and the NCAA staff spends an inordinate amount of time processing that kind of violation.”

Stationery is far from the only area where the rules do not seem to have any sense of reality. Kennedy cited another, even more ludicrous, example. Coaches are allowed unlimited phone calls to a prospect in the five days preceding an official visit, he said, in order to coordinate travel and arrival plans. But if the visit is subsequently cancelled, perhaps due to weather conditions that delay air travel, then those phone calls are considered illegal.

“You’re tempted sometimes, [with] some stupid violation…to say, ‘Oh forget it.’ But we can’t do that,” Kennedy said. “We have to write it up and send it in and tell everybody in the world we committed that violation. And send copies to the conference, and to the president. What that does is that demonstrates to everybody who gets a copy of that violation letter, that we are paying attention.”

And even as the calls from all sides grow louder for the NCAA to at least rework, if not drastically rewrite, the ever-thickening rulebook, some experts wonder if the current model of compliance and monitoring can even function in its present configuration.

“The NCAA polices the universities that comprise its membership,” Charles Robinson, the Yahoo! Sports writer who exposed major violations at Miami, said. “So on a macro level, you have an overall system governing itself, which always is problematic. Because what does a system that governs itself typically do? It makes decisions to allow itself to sustain its own existence.”

The NCAA’s mandate might seem self-serving, but there is an even more direct motive for the schools themselves to shunt aside potential compliance problems—more revenue.

“If you’re a compliance officer out there doing your job to the best of your abilities,” Robinson said, “and you’re reporting every single little thing that’s going on with your program, that can have negative consequences for that program. And if it has negative consequences that take players off the field, that can impact wins and losses, and that can impact the bottom line.”

From the increased leverage and involvement of third parties with players and recruits, to the convoluted structure of the rules themselves, to the potentially contradictory motivations of policing entities, the entire compliance arena is a veritable minefield of problems and conflicts. With so many obstacles and so many moving pieces in a game that becomes more complex all the time, Robinson is skeptical that running a truly compliant program is even possible in today’s college football climate.

“If your definition of a clean program is that it has to be entirely clean, then you have to expect the kids to be clean too,” he said. “That the kid is going to go out there and never take anything, that his family is going to go out there and never take anything, and I don’t know if that’s realistic.”

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