Illustration by Alex Williamson
Illustration by Alex Williamson

Playing by the Rules

As a result of efforts to provide a level playing field for NCAA member institutions, policies governing college sports have become increasingly Byzantine. Interpreting them has become an industry unto itself.
April 1, 2010

Has it really come to this?

In the high-stakes arena of college athletics, prospective basketball recruits can be as young as twelve years old. Other than regulation training meals and nutritional supplements like energy drinks, universities can only provide student-athletes with snacks consisting of bagels, fruit, and nuts—no cream cheese, no peanut butter, nothing else. Businesses can take out advertisements congratulating a winning team, as long as the company's product is not shown or identified. A coach is allowed to attend the funeral of a prospective student athlete's family member—as long as the student-athlete has signed a National Letter of Intent to matriculate at that coach's institution. Even the word "day" has to be defined (12:01 a.m. to midnight, in case you were wondering).

Illustration by Alex Williamson

Illustration by Alex Williamson

Welcome to the convoluted, cumbersome, constantly changing landscape of athletics compliance, as governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In thick manuals that are revised every year, the association dictates what can and can't be done by anyone (everyone) associated with college sports—coaches, academic institutions, student-athletes, fans, and the media. These manuals—one for each of the NCAA's three divisions—spell out the rules and regulations that govern the athletic activities of its 1,281 member institutions.

It's tempting to wonder what the rules of play might be if current compliance regulations were applied to the fledgling game of basketball, invented in 1891 when physical-education instructor James Naismith nailed up a couple of peach baskets so his players could get exercise during the winter. Maybe the baskets would have to come exclusively from growers of the fruit's white-fleshed, clingstone variety. Or perhaps the nails used to attach the baskets would have to be of the galvanized, spiral-shank, diamond point, high-carbon variety. And that's before the first player even walks onto the court.

From her perch on the sidelines or a chair in front of her television, Hartmann says she automatically scans uniforms to make certain logos are the right size and in the right place. If she observes an assistant coach talking to someone on his cell phone, she wonders if it's a recruiting call. If there's a prospective student-athlete among the spectators, she keeps an eye on media reps to see whether they try to corner the prospect for an interview.

Last year, during an ESPN segment on allegations of improper recruiting at a football powerhouse, Hartmann watched as the camera crew taped the coach chatting up a recruit—a blatant violation of a number of NCAA rules. Earlier in her career, she might have been surprised. But as a longtime athletics administrator whose posts have included a stint on the NCAA's Academics/Eligibility/Compliance Cabinet, she's grown accustomed to seeing a wide spectrum of questionable or inappropriate actions on and off the field, from honest mistakes to egregious behavior. "As much as I love all kinds of sporting events, both pro and amateur, I can't help but see athletic competition differently than the average fan."

Hartmann is one of four full-time staff members in Duke's athletics department devoted exclusively to compliance issues. A fifth staff member, Chris Kennedy Ph.D. '79, deputy director of athletics, oversees all compliance activities, in addition to other responsibilities. The main categories that consume the majority of the staff members' time are in the areas of recruiting, eligibility, and financial aid. Each person has his or her area of expertise, but they all endeavor to stay up to speed on compliance issues across the board.

"The NCAA manual is our annual compliance bible," says Hartmann. "At last count there were more than 4,000 rules, and we have an NCAA database that incorporates 10,000 interpretations and educational columns."

Here's an example from the 2009-10 NCAA Division I Manual: "If an institution's uniform or any item of apparel worn by a student-athlete in competition contains washing instructions on the outside of the apparel on a patch that also includes the manufacturer's or distributor's logo or trademark, the entire patch must be contained within a four-sided geometrical figure (rectangle, square, parallelogram) that does not to [sic] exceed 2¼ square inches."

As arcane—and even silly—as some of the rules are, the consequences for not abiding by them can be enormous. Violations of rules fall into two categories: major, such as illegal recruiting or giving student athletes banned drugs such as anabolic steroids; and secondary, usually minor or unintentional, such as sending an e-mail message to a recruit during a "dead" period for recruiting or giving away more than the official allotted number of complimentary game tickets to a student-athlete's family. The most egregious primary violations can result in significant fines, the invalidation of a team's entire season (including championships), loss of some or all scholarships, and years of probationary status for an entire athletics program.

It's usually the major violations that make headlines. The harshest punishment meted out by the NCAA so far was in the mid-1980s against Southern Methodist University's football program for frequent and blatant recruiting violations. The sanctions included a two-year ban on all TV and bowl-game appearances, the loss of three assistant coaching positions and fifty-five scholarships, and cancellation of the 1987 season.

Illustration by Alex Williamson

Illustration by Alex Williamson

More recently, this past December, Pat Murphy, Arizona State University's head baseball coach and three-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year, resigned (or was fired, depending on reports) the day after the NCAA sent a letter to the school citing a number of alleged violations. (Arizona State was already on probation for earlier violations.) This past fall, the NCAA stripped the University of Memphis basketball team of its winning 2007-08 season, including a Final Four appearance, because, among other violations, recruited player Derrick Rose allegedly got someone to take the SAT for him. Although John Calipari, the Memphis coach at the time, was not charged with any wrongdoing, it was the second time a team under his leadership had a Final Four appearance vacated. The first was in 1996, when he was at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Chris Kennedy, who joined Duke's athletics staff in 1977, says he's not overly concerned about the university's being hit with allegations of major violations. "At Duke there has been a culture of compliance from the very beginning," he says. "You don't come to Duke as a coach or as an athletics program employee if you're not interested in being good, promoting academic success, and doing things the right way. You just wouldn't fit in.

"So I don't worry about a coach trying to hire a kid's father or anything like that. I do worry about things we can't control, things that are outside the institution. But I think we've structured our program in a way that we can demonstrate we've done everything we possibly can to comply with the rules."

For years, Kennedy was the sole athletics staff member in charge of compliance issues at Duke. That responsibility was a small part of his larger job, an arrangement that was practiced at nearly all other colleges and universities. But as the market for professional sports grew into a multi-billiondollar enterprise, the feeder systems for pro sports—primarily Division I college programs—became concomitantly lucrative. The better a school does in the NCAA basketball tournament, for example, the more money— from ticket sales and broadcasting revenue, for example—it receives.

Complicating matters further is the fact that college athletics programs must increasingly seek outside revenue, particularly in the current economy. Schools vying for the best players want to make sure that pricey enticements such as state-of-the-art practice facilities, tasty training-table meals, and strong academic support services will provide a competitive edge in recruiting. In 1989, an independent body, The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, was formed to address the commercialization, and excesses, of college sports. Its first report, "Keeping Faith With the Student Athlete: A New Model for Intercollegiate Athletics," issued in 1991, called for major changes in the way athletics programs were run, to make certain they didn't eclipse the educational mission of colleges and universities.

In its most recent study, "College Sports 101: A Primer on Money, Athletics, and Higher Education in the 21st Century," the commission reports that "the fast-evolving world of sports business includes event promoters, television networks, marketing firms, ticket brokers and sponsors from all sectors of the corporate world, creating new questions about intellectual property for both the institution and the student-athlete, the appropriate distance between athletes and commercial presence, and the ability to maintain amateur athletics in a commercial marketplace." Paradoxically, the NCAA has grown from being primarily a regulatory body to a major financial beneficiary of college sports revenue. (The NCAA basketball tournament, with its valuable broadcasting rights and advertising slots, is the primary annual revenue producer for the association.)

Players and their advocates question the conflicts of interest potentially posed by such an arrangement. A number of current and former student-athletes are suing the NCAA and its official commercial partners for using players' likenesses to sell video games. Although such lucrative deals are legal—one of the leading sports game producers, EA Sports, has signed exclusivity licensing deals with the NCAA and ESPN for marketing their products and brands— the games barely skirt the rules the NCAA has in place for protecting players' amateur status. In these games, players' names are not used, but their likenesses, jersey numbers, and team positions are identical to those of the actual players.

During a 2008 Knight Commission hearing, Wallace I. Renfro, at the time the senior adviser to then-NCAA president Myles Brand, defended the association even as he acknowledged the irony of strictly regulating amateur sports while making large sums of money off of them. "The problem is that we mistakenly extend the concept of amateurism to the enterprise itself. To be clear, student-athletes are amateurs. Intercollegiate athletics is not," he said.

To be sure, most of the rules and regulations in the NCAA manuals evolved from legitimate concerns, such as addressing inequities between schools, and providing equal opportunities to all colleges, regardless of endowment or size, to recruit and retain the best players. And so there are rules about the maximum number of pages permitted for media guides, or the use of color in publications, or how mail can be sent (priority versus standard). A more cynical view is that when there's money to be made, people will look for ways to circumvent the rules. Regardless of the perspective, it's a fact that the college sports with the highest potential for professional monetary success for team owners, athletes, and advertisers—football, basketball, baseball, and hockey—are more likely to be where NCAA violations occur.

NCAA rules and regulations are proposed, approved, and amended by representatives of its member organizations, and a lot of those rules and regulations are driven by competition—the perception that another coach or team may be benefiting from an unfair advantage, however great or small. As Chris Kennedy notes, "Someone sees an assistant coach on the sidelines of a bowl game calling a recruit and says, 'Hey, that's an unfair advantage because I can't call a recruit from the sidelines of a bowl game.' So legislation is proposed and passed that you can't do that.

Illustration by Alex Williamson

Illustration by Alex Williamson

"I can't tell you how many mutations of legislation covering stationery there have been in the last twenty years. You can't do postcards; you can only do postcards. You can't use color; you can use color. And it's constantly, constantly changing."

More vexing than the sheer volume of dos and don'ts handed down every year is the issue of adjudication. Sports analyst and former varsity basketball player Jay Bilas '86, J.D. '92 says the process of enforcing the rules is fundamentally flawed. "The NCAA doesn't have to reveal where an allegation is coming from, but the school bears the responsibility of conducting an internal investigation to answer those allegations. Now, schools are using these rules as a recruiting mechanism. A school competing with another school for the same recruit can lodge a secondary violation allegation with the NCAA, and then that school has to take the time to prove that the allegation is unfounded. It happens all the time."

In the summer of 2008, for example, the NCAA notified Duke of a potential violation. An anonymous voicemail message alleged that basketball player DeMarcus Nelson '08 had been seen doing workouts with a professional trainer. It was then incumbent upon Duke to point out that Nelson had already graduated, and that, as a professional athlete, he wasn't breaking any rules by hiring a trainer.

And that's not an extreme example. In the spring of 2009, when John Wall, the top-ranked high-school point guard in the country, was being recruited, a Blue Devil fan unaffiliated with Duke started a Facebook group called "John Wall, come to DUKE!!" The group violated the NCAA rules governing recruiting, since, according to the NCAA, the fan was "a representative of the institution's athletics interests"—albeit tangentially. Duke officials wrote a cease-and-desist letter to the fan, asking him to take down the page. He complied, but if he hadn't, Duke would have been guilty of a secondary violation.
More recently, junior basketball player Nolan Smith received a two-game suspension this season for playing in a summer pickup game that hadn't been sanctioned by the NCAA. (The NCAA forbids players to participate in games it hasn't approved in advance, because, its rule-makers reason, such participation could, in some cases, violate a players' amateur status.) Smith admitted he should have checked with the Duke athletics department before joining the game. Duke reported the violation
to the NCAA and suspended Smith for the two games. But Coach Mike Krzyzewski told Raleigh's News & Observer that he's not a fan of penalizing players for such unintentional and inconsequential actions. "I think kids should be able to play wherever they want to play."

With thousands and thousands of rules governing their every move, it's no wonder that players and coaches are occasionally caught off guard. But when it comes to interpreting these myriad rules, even the people charged with understanding them can find themselves at a loss. Bilas tells a story about three compliance staff members of a college athletics program who were unclear about a particular rule. The three each placed separate calls to the NCAA—and received three different interpretations of the rule. Then, Bilas says, the staff members compared notes and chose the interpretation they liked best.

Given the murky nature of interpreting rules, secondary violations—Smith's pickup game error, or an email message sent to recruits a day before it is permissible—are seen as the cost of doing (amateur) business. In 2008-09, Duke reported twenty secondary violations, all of which were inadvertent in nature and minor in scope, according to both Duke officials and the NCAA. In one instance, an alumnus read that a local high-school player had committed to Duke and took the student athlete out for lunch (a no-no). To offset this violation, the student was required to donate to charity the twelve dollars that his lunch cost.

On another occasion, two student-athletes appeared as part of a crowd shot during taping for a TV commercial. They were neither paid nor identified as athletes, but their appearance violated rules prohibiting them from endorsing commercial products. In nearly all of the cases, members of the athletics staff discovered the violations and notified the NCAA.

Cindy Hartmann, the associate athletics director, says even though violations are going to happen, it's incumbent upon colleges to do their best to abide by the rules. To that end, she says her primary role is educating internal and external constituencies about the complicated world of compliance. "Creating a higher level of awareness is a critical factor for us," she says. "It's a continual process. We send out compliance tips of the week through e-mail, publish a monthly newsletter [The Compliance Chronicle], and meet with coaches and students on an ongoing basis. Timeliness and frequency of information is essential.

"We also work hard to develop a sense of trust among athletics department staff members so that they understand we are on the front lines looking out for them, not coming behind them to assess what they have or haven't done. If you have that level of trust, that's when you'll get the knock on the door or the phone call asking about whether something is okay."

Still, she says, "there are always going to be people out there who try to work around the rules, who don't care about the consequences of their actions. People involved in college athletics, even with the best of intentions, are going to make honest mistakes. NCAA rules are laborious, but at the end of the day, they are in place to protect the kids who are playing the game."

And for observers who question whether there is any turning back to a simpler time—when a phone call meant a personal conversation, not a possible recruiting violation, and a pickup game was a spontaneous celebration of sportsmanship, not a cause for concern—the answer can be found, in various iterations, throughout the NCAA manual: Don't bet on it.