If You’re Into Cheating, the NCAA Will Have Trouble Stopping You

Posted by Chris Johnson on June 17th, 2013

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Most present-day criticisms of the NCAA nitpick its ethical and moral standards. They excoriate a system where athletes hand over the rights to their likenesses and athletic talents, yet are deprived of a slice of revenue those talents generate. They berate a byzantine rulebook filled with inane bylaws and regulations. They attack “amateurism” from every rhetorical angle. The verbal takedowns have hit a fever pitch in recent years as the NCAA’s handling of various high-profile impermissible benefits has provided convenient ammunition for fire-breathing columnists and national commentators. As long as amateurism is upheld as the foundational pillar of NCAA enforcement, and athletes remain removed from any monetary benefits on top of what’s offered in one-year renewable grant-in aid scholarships, the organization will be forced to tolerate a bombardment of scrutiny with no recourse to shift the public discourse away from its doggedly indignant mindset.

Losing a high-ranking enforcement official like Newman Baker is a continuation of a scary trend within the NCAA's enforcement wing (Getty).

Losing a high-ranking enforcement official like Newman Baker is a continuation of a scary trend within the NCAA’s enforcement wing (Getty).

Lamenting the NCAA, the institution, has and will continue to be a prominent feature of American sports media. Now there’s a new dimension to attack, and it goes deeper than flawed ideals or morally corrupt philosophies or anything about the NCAA’s actual legislative structure. These days, the NCAA has far bigger concerns than angry middle-aged sportswriters railing on amateurism, because before long, it may not have enough staff members to maintain amateurism’s grip on college athletics in the first place. Yahoo!’s Pat Forde delved into the deteriorating culture inside the organization a couple weeks ago – how over the past 18 months, the NCAA has seen some of its top investigators pack up and leave for compliance positions at various universities. The end result, as Forde writes, is an environment where athletes, coaches, boosters, agents and whoever else might be inclined to step outside amateurism’s restrictive boundaries are encouraged to go right ahead and do their worst. They can, in other words, break rules without bearing a passing concern for the consequences on the other end. The coast is clear. The people that prop up amateurism, and wield the power to cripple athletic programs with scholarship reductions and postseason bans, are quickly leaving the premises. Moving on. Fleeing the scene before the bottom drops out.

This is a problem.

The NCAA as an institution was never popular. It never stood the test of moral decency. It always reeked of greed and corruption and outdated application. But it could always fall back on one important fact: It bred fear across college sports. Programs understood the risks and the corresponding consequences of stepping over the line. But if the NCAA doesn’t have the manpower or the experience to police illicit behavior under its own enforcement model, that enforcement model crumbles at the knees. There is no police, no scholarship reductions, or missed Fiesta Bowl, to fret over. If shelling out $100,000 under the table for that five-star point guard is the cost of doing business, well, who’s going to stop us?

That rambling prelude is a perfect jumping off point for last week’s news that Rachel Newman Baker, the NCAA managing director of enforcement for development and investigations, has joined the pack of departed enforcement officials. Her next move? Becoming the University of Kentucky’s next associate athletic director for compliance. Baker has been at the lead of several high profile NCAA investigations over the past decade, but as the organization has slowly devolved into a state of severe disrepair under president Mark Emmert’s leadership, and more and more staffers have jumped ship along the way, Baker decided it was time for herself to move on, too. Needless to say, this is another critical wound in the NCAA’s withering enforcement group. It also dovetails perfectly with the bombshell Sports Illustrated report on the Nevin Shepiro scandal at Miami, which unearths lurid details about the organization’s incomprehensibly specious enforcement tactics, casts further doubt over how previous investigations – the Ohio State tattoos-for-swag ordeal, for example – were dealt with and drives home the popular notion that that the NCAA is sinking further and further away from its intended purpose to impose order on college sports.

Rival fans may have a different take. Of course Kentucky would hire one of the NCAA’s most trusted enforcement staffers. Of course it wants to make friends with the enemy. Calipari can pay recruits as often and as much as he wants! Ok, that’s… just no. Eyebrows will be raised whenever something involves Kentucky and the NCAA, particularly from a certain red-clad, national title-winning fan base in the same state, but if you’re truly willing to believe a respected enforcement chief would leave her post to help a college basketball coach influence recruits, or that Calipari even needs inside assistance at all, you’re just being silly. Your tinfoil hat is bursting at the seams. I can all but guarantee you: Kentucky basketball is NOT conspiring with the NCAA, ok? Cool.

Back on planet earth, where outlandish accusations are dutifully neglected by smart, rational people, we’ll talk about what Baker’s departure means in the larger picture of college sports’ chief ruling body. It’s simple, really. The NCAA is not doing well, and not just in the eyes of amateurism’s nearly unanimous wall of skeptics. Ill-intentioned schools and boosters and third parties are likewise aware of the organization’s declining enforcement strength. NCAA scandals on college sports campuses are never fun to write or talk about. But they did exist – precisely because the organization’s skilled investigators made it so. They dug up the dirt and brought the thunder. They worked to make sure everyone operated on an equal playing field. When important staffers and long-time investigators are bolting left and right, and taking all their keen investigative intellect along with them, the NCAA can’t do its job. Not only are its basic policies a matter of vigorous disdain from most any college sports fan you ask, but the NCAA, with every costly enforcement staff departure, can’t even claim to protect its own broken system. For the rulebreakers of college sports, the shady AAU leech, the wealthy booster, the seedy shoe company disciple – it is free reign.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.

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