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Tough rules to follow

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

The first thing you notice in Chris Kennedy’s office are the books. Even the windowsill has been repurposed as a bookshelf. As a former Duke English professor, that may not seem surprising, but even in his current role as deputy directory of athletics, overseeing the NCAA compliance of Duke’s athletic programs, he has to keep up with a lot of literature. He oversees a compliance staff that includes four full-time employees, including two that hold law degrees.

Compliance hardly required a four-man staff when Kennedy first took his position in 1986.

“The NCAA manual in 1986 looked like this,” Kennedy said, picking up a paperback of a few hundred pages off his desk. “Except not so thick…. If I had a compliance question, I called the ACC and talked to the commissioner. The compliance guy at Virginia was the baseball coach.”

Following NCAA rules is no small matter in today’s world, though. The list of programs sullied by NCAA sanctions or infractions reads like a who’s who of college football’s top 25, and two of the biggest scandals of the past decade have emerged from Duke’s own conference. In August, former booster Nevin Shapiro turned the college sports world upside down when he said he had engaged in providing illegal benefits to athletes over the course of eight years.

But what really hit home for Kennedy and his colleagues at Duke was the scandal at North Carolina that led to the suspension of six players for the entire season and the dismissal of then-head coach Butch Davis in July.

“When the North Carolina thing first came out late last summer, we went up to [President Brodhead],” Kennedy said. “And [Brodhead] was nervous, of course, because he was thinking, ‘Could this happen here?’”

Kennedy and the rest of the athletic department are doing everything they can to prevent such a scandal from cropping up at Duke, but the contemporary landscape has made that all the more difficult. Some experts point to the astronomical growth in popularity and revenue-generating capability of college sports as the culprit.

“A football Saturday in college sports sure looks a heck of a lot like a football Sunday in the NFL,” Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports, who broke the story about Shapiro and Miami, said, “and it sells like a football Sunday in the NFL.... It’s a landscape that almost has impropriety built into [it].”

Others believe that such problems have always existed. Tom Luginbill, national recruiting director for ESPN’s college football recruiting service Scouts Inc., believes that growing media attention has caused the hypersensitivity to compliance issues.

“I’m not so sure there’s all that much more going on than there ever was before,” Luginbill said. “There are just more ways for it to come out.”

Regardless of the overall causes, compliance has become increasingly difficult and extremely important, and the Duke athletic department has taken that to heart.

“It’s part of a larger sense that we want to do intercollegiate athletics the right way,” Kennedy said.

But coordinating intercollegiate athletics, especially football, the right way is hardly a simple thing. The attraction of money and fame draws all sorts of people into the college football envelope, many of whom are not at all directly affiliated with the programs themselves. The scene has become rife with agents, handlers and attention-hungry boosters, who are not afraid to entice players and prospects with money and gifts, irrespective of NCAA regulations.

“The issue is how do you police something you have no control over,” Luginbill said. “College coaches want to do it right. But the environment is a very difficult one to do that…. The problem is, in relationship to boosters or friends of the program or third parties or runners or agents, right now there is no policing model that provides any deterrent for those people.”

In many ways, the NCAA itself does not make the situation any easier.

“The damn rulebook is 500 pages long,” Kennedy said, “and it’s always changing, and it’s contradictory, and it’s confusing. Nobody’s mastered that whole thing.”

Schools are hardly defenseless, though, in their efforts to prevent impropriety within their programs. Hiring the right personnel and choosing student-athletes carefully are crucial steps toward steering a program clear of potential issues with the NCAA.

“We do a good job, I think, of educating,” Kennedy said. “[Say the] basketball team goes to Chicago and they bump into a guy that we’ve never heard of, that has never given us a dime, never has any connection with the university, who wants to give them $100....Well, we’re responsible for that. So the defense against that is to educate the kid about what he or she can or can’t do, can or can’t take, what interactions they can have with people, and so on, so that when the guy offers the $100, the player knows to go, ‘Sorry, I can’t take that.’ Then again, if the kid looks around and takes the $100, it isn’t because he didn’t know he shouldn’t do it. It isn’t because we didn’t educate him.”

Athletic departments across the nation are engaged in a losing battle, trying to keep hundreds of student-athletes in compliance with a seemingly endless rulebook. All it takes is a few people, be they coaches, players or auxiliary personnel, to bring an entire program to its knees.

“It’s taken us 30 years to build a very trusting relationship with the provost’s office and the faculty and the deans, but it can all be destroyed overnight,” Kennedy said. “So you don’t say, ‘We’ve earned everybody’s trust, now we’re good.’ You earn it every day.”

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