Does the NCAA Need Stronger Enforcement Mechanisms? Difficult Times Call For Radical Solutions…Posted by Chris Johnson on August 20th, 2012
Christopher Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The college athletic franchise has long championed itself as a strictly “amateur” system, with financial compensation for athletes standing as one of the cardinal sins behind an elaborate and unwieldy set of rules and regulations. The legislation preventing such illicit activity is diverse and wide-ranging, and several prominent athletic programs have been subjected to its punitive aptitude in the past decade. USC football received heavy sanctions in June 2010 including a two-year postseason ban and severe scholarship reductions as a result of a pay-for-play scandal surrounding former star running back Reggie Bush. Connecticut men’s basketball lost its head coach, Jim Calhoun, for three games last season among other restrictive penalties for recruiting violations committed during the pursuit of highly-touted shooting guard Nate Miles. The list of transgressions in the past few years alone is considerable, but the retributive measures have done little to prevent other programs from repeating previous mistakes and inventing new ways to game the system. College sports’ amateurism label is continually disgraced by programs willing to risk punishment for the end result of competitive advantage, whether that is through recruiting violations, pay-for-play, or some combination therein. And the NCAA, for all its intricately defined policing mechanisms and retributive wherewithal, remains largely impotent in preventing forbidden activity.
Instances of NCAA rule-breaking are revealed with frequent regularity, but the organization’s monitoring policies have done little to stem the tide of illicit behavior in the world of power conference athletics. The lawless activity has remained a fixture in the seedy underground world of college hoops recruiting, from Michigan’s dealings with booster Ed Martin to USC’s illegal recruitment of O.J. Mayo to UConn’s mishap with Miles. On Saturday, The New York Times‘ Pete Thamel provided another excellent example of the prevalent and deep-rooted iniquity that goes part and parcel with the process of courting the nation’s top high school players. In fact, his story takes us back more than a decade ago and offers up detailed insight for just how pervasive and systematically entrenched the criminal activity has become. Jonathan Hargett, who is now serving a nearly five-year sentence on drug charges after a promising basketball career was derailed by agents, runners, drugs and a number of other regrettable choices, is the subject of focus. According to Hargett, who played one season at West Virginia under coach Gale Catlett, agents approached him seeking to engage in financial-based representation when he was 15 and ultimately steered him toward the Mountaineers. Hargett’s wrongdoing was extensive, so much so that Dan Dakich, hired to replace Catlett (who retired shortly after Hargett’s one season in Morgantown), recounted vividly the specifics of Hargett’s institutionalized payment program: “They [agents] promised me $60,000 and only gave me $20,000,” Hargett told Dakich, according to the now ESPN sportscaster and radio personality. And even as Dakich departed what he called a “culture of dishonesty” after just eight days on the job, the NCAA could not compile a substantial body of evidence to punish West Virginia.
Hargett’s story is an emotional and detailed account of the latest instance of college hoops recruiting iniquity, but this culture run amok is much less a single program’s veering from the mold than a widespread practice. The organization has cracked down on various rule-breakers, and still, the unlawful behavior runs rampant in a regulated system that stresses, above all else, amateurism and athletic integrity. Even with the recent proliferation of successful NCAA investigatory work — Ohio State’s “tattoo gate”, the ongoing investigation of Miami’s complicity in booster Nevin Shapiro’s ponzi-scheme-based player compensation plan, Oregon’s alleged payments to independent recruiting serviceman Willie Lyles — there’s been a gradual increase in infractions and the variety with which they’ve been committed, which has exposed the flawed nature of the organization’s enforcement mechanisms. It has exposed the holes, the loopholes, the kinks in the armor. Programs have proven adept at evading punishment, which renders the cost-benefit analysis weighing strongly in favor of violation — bringing with it a potential competitive advantage — and against strict observance of NCAA bylaws. Unless a stronger and more effective punitive system is implemented, the fraudulent behavior will continue. Once the incentive-based decision-making process is adjusted to the point where programs actually have to think twice before breaking the rules, the negligence of NCAA legislation will recede in favor of a more cautious and wary approach on behalf of ill-fated programs.
There is no quick fix; this will be a slow and gradually improving process, with a lengthy gestation period before any new measures take effect. The next step is figuring out exactly how to improve the current penalty structure, to deter the rule-breakers from continuing their prohibited activity. One option is a financial-based self-monitoring system, where whistle-blowers can report violations and receive compensation for their watchdog work. It sounds logical, but even the most blatant violations can be masked with an effective cover-up plan. Plus, would employees risk crippling their own athletic programs by self-reporting violations? A more intriguing concept — one that, admittedly, would require a large financial commitment on behalf of the NCAA — is the implementation of organization members within each athletic department as vigilantes of sorts; independent policemen observing the inner workings of each athletic department and watchful of any potential violations. These agents would have unlimited access to financial records and contact histories, and could file monthly (or even weekly) reports on the behind-the-scenes developments in each athletic program. Having a rat in the system would make any attempts at breaking protocol extremely risky, with the possibility that said whistle-blower will report any wrongdoing back to NCAA headquarters. If the NCAA itself won’t pony up to implement such a system, it could force each program to reimburse their quasi-employees. It’s a radical concept, sure. But by granting this sort of unprecedented leeway in investigatory procedures, the NCAA would have an eye, so to speak, within each program, ensuring its complex rulebook is obeyed to a tee.
This sort of far-reaching endeavor may never make its way through the various hurdles in the NCAA’s rule approval process, although the recently endorsed penalty structure set to go into effect as early as October provides hope for a future with less procedural hiccups and agonizingly slow reactive policies. What’s clear is that the NCAA needs to strengthen its oversight and influence over the increasingly sinister college athletics landscape. How it works toward that end remains unclear, but unless more effective policy is installed, the status quo will struggle to limit the illicit behavior jeopardizing its fundamental mission statement: amateurism.