Guardians of the Game
Though sometimes feared and often misunderstood, the enforcement team has just one goal: making the right call
The second-floor offices in downtown Indianapolis don’t overlook anything majestic — just a loading dock, generators and a couple of dumpsters. The NCAA enforcement team’s workspace resembles a set from “The Office”: modular beige cubicles positioned on commercial-grade beige carpet, the desks peppered with collections of coffee mugs, photos of kids and spouses, and pennants from alma maters.
The setting, coupled with the fact that campus athletics personnel prefer to stay as far away from enforcement as possible, would seem to make it an unlikely place to visit. Or so Joyce Thompson thought.
This spring Thompson, an enforcement investigator who has worked in those cubicles for 15 years, was asked to lead compliance officers — already in town to brush up on NCAA rules and bylaws — among the rows of desks. “Nobody’s going to want to take a tour,” she assured herself.
The opening of the office was an unexpected step for the investigators, too, who often see college athletics at its worst yet believe in what it can be at its best. One tells the story of knocking on a door for an unannounced visit with a man and noticing a sign in his window announcing he had a gun and didn’t like surprises. Another describes arriving for an interview with someone who had agreed to chat, but the man greeted the investigator with a public tongue-lashing so his buddies wouldn’t think him a tipster. Yet another says she asked her parents to stop Googling her name; the search results were too painful.
So when Thompson and her colleagues locked away their confidential notes and opened the doors of an office that often triggers derision and dread, both the enforcement staff members and those who try not to get in their crosshairs were entering new territory. To Thompson’s surprise, about 175 Division I athletics personnel accepted the invitation.
“They were fascinated,” she says. “I was amazed.”
For those compliance officers in attendance — as well as their athletics directors, coaches and fans back home — what happens in that second-floor enclave has long been shrouded in mystery. The information void has been filled by assumptions and misconceptions about who investigators are and how they do their jobs.
The innocuous office tour was a rare opportunity to peek behind the curtain — one in a series of incremental steps enforcement has taken in recent years to convince colleges and universities that the messy, imperfect process of making rules and enforcing them is a shared responsibility, and an essential one.
Enforcement’s evolution has been intentional, though it arrived with little pronouncement or promise. It came, instead, amid the fallout of a controversial investigation 4½ years ago. Backlash from fans of a school under investigation is a regular job hazard for college sports investigators. But in the wake of an inquiry into improprieties at Miami (Florida), member schools and the media alike called the enforcement arm bungled, bloated, broken. They even questioned whether the NCAA should be in the business of investigating rule-breakers at all.
In the face of questions and accusations, enforcement has made its methods more transparent and offered pledges of timeliness and even customer service. Investigators have invited college coaches and compliance officers to the national office to brainstorm how to stop violations before they happen. And after each investigation, Jon Duncan, the vice president of enforcement, schedules a call with the school’s president or chancellor to ask an unexpected question: How’d we do?
Tensions inevitably will persist, but the investigators tasked with ensuring a level playing field press on. Their way forward is illuminated by their simple, yet agonizingly complex, charge: Get it right.
Not long after Duncan accepted his post, he rummaged through the NCAA’s digital archive of championship photos. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but, just as he had hoped, he knew it when he saw it.
Today, a 16-by-20-inch print of the photo he found hangs in his line of sight on the wall opposite his desk. Shot at the 2014 Division III Men’s Soccer Championship final between Tufts and Wheaton (Illinois), the image depicts a midgame scrum. A Tufts player is on the ground. Over him stands a man, dressed head to toe in black, with his index finger raised, as if to say: “Give me a moment. Let me think.”
And around them, eight players converge — each trying to get the man’s attention, each with countenances and gesticulations telling a different story. One appears to be calling for a free kick; another suggests a turnover; still another seems to be trying to call a timeout. Even fans in the stands, some 100 feet away, are urging the game to bend to their will.
“What I love about the ref is that he’s mindful of those voices. You can tell because he’s got his hand gently raised — ‘I acknowledge you’ — but he’s focused on the issue,” Duncan says. “I don’t know this referee, but I expect his instructions are: ‘Call them like you see them. Get it right. Be mindful when other people are trying to influence your decision, but don’t yield to that. Because to appease one group is to upset another, and we’re not going to operate that way.’”
The photo’s message, of course, is Duncan’s earnest edict to his staff. And it must be: As long as amateur sports have existed, so have forces trying to sway their outcomes.
In the fifth century B.C., for instance, Astylus won both the sprint and the distance run in the Olympics, bringing pride to his hometown of Croton. But bribes persuaded him to compete in another Olympics on behalf of Syracuse, so Croton banned its favorite son and converted the house it had built for him into a prison.
When college sports was born two millennia later, cheating emerged from the womb alongside it. Even at one of the first U.S. intercollegiate contests in 1855, the Yale-Harvard Regatta, Harvard used a coxswain who wasn’t a student. By the late 1800s, paying for athletes was considered part of the game.
College presidents and faculty were alarmed. So, at the dawn of the 20th century, when concerns about football safety led to a national governing body for college sports, the idea that it should enforce the rules wasn’t far behind. In 1910, just hours after a group of college and university leaders had renamed their organization the National Collegiate Athletic Association, a physical education professor at the University of Pennsylvania bemoaned that if ticket sales and publicity continued to increase, the popularity of college sports could be its downfall.
Several decades passed before the young association took on policing its own members. By the 1950s, television contracts, corporate sponsors and big-money boosters were increasingly part of the game, and the NCAA — fearing the influence exploitive practices could have on higher education — established what eventually became the modern enforcement process. But since those first cases, enforcement has ridden a pendulum of reaction: Corner-cutters find new ways to violate rules, which beget new rules to close loopholes and more empowerment for the enforcement staff, which leads to perceptions that rules and investigators are too intrusive, which prompts both to be curtailed, which makes corners simpler to cut.
High-profile investigations draw attention from not only the public and those who work in athletics, but also from college presidents, who know athletics can set the tone for their schools’ reputations. Among the biggest: A booster-supported slush fund for prospective student-athletes at SMU that began in the 1970s. Point-shaving at Tulane and Boston College that came to light in the ’80s. Payouts for basketball players at Michigan in the early ’90s and academic fraud at Minnesota in the middle of the decade. More academic deception, this time at Georgia, at the dawn of a new century.
Then, in 2011, a hurricane.
At the root of the Miami investigation were a former booster’s claims that he provided impermissible benefits to coaches, college athletes and prospective student-athletes for nearly a decade. Following an external review, the NCAA acknowledged that enforcement staff “acted contrary to internal protocols, legal counsel and the membership’s understanding about the limits of its investigative powers” when it used the subpoena authority of the booster’s attorney in a separate bankruptcy case.
The national office initiated a comprehensive review of the enforcement program. NCAA President Mark Emmert named an interim vice president of enforcement. By the time the review was complete, the investigators involved already had left the NCAA. And in the six months that followed, one-fourth of the enforcement staff resigned. Today, one managing director calls it “the implosion of enforcement as we knew it.”
In January 2013, as the investigation was still underway, Emmert presented a standing-room-only crowd of university presidents and athletics administrators at the NCAA Convention with the idea that enforcement’s work is the flip side of a shiny coin.
“One side is much-beloved — it’s our championships, it’s our games, it’s our competition,” Emmert said. “The other side of the coin is as disliked as the shiny side is liked, and that’s the regulatory side of college sports. … The success of the shiny side creates the demand for the regulatory side.
“How do we make sense of both sides of the coin?” he continued. “If we’re going to keep this balance working, then we have got to just not worry about the shiny part.”
To recover, the Association turned to Duncan, a Kansas City, Missouri, attorney who had represented the NCAA as outside counsel for more than a decade. He agreed to an 18-month stint as interim vice president of enforcement and began tackling a twofold challenge: restoring members’ confidence in enforcement and reviving his team’s morale.
Duncan jumped in his 2006 Volvo in February 2013 with little more than a loaf of wheat bread and a jar of peanut butter (Jif, extra crunchy). He left his wife behind in Missouri to shepherd their two children through the end of the school year.
His mission was straightforward: Keep the coin balanced on its side.
“I was very clear with the staff,” Duncan recalls. “I said, ‘I’m going to try to help right this ship. I’ve defended this model for years in court. I want to help it from the inside now.’”
Duncan’s family followed him to Indianapolis that summer. One year later, at about the time he thought he would be returning to his law practice, he accepted his position permanently and hung a photo on his office wall of a soccer referee, finger raised, carefully weighing the facts.
When Americans who don’t work in college sports conjure an image of what an NCAA investigator looks like, they likely picture Joyce Thompson — or, rather, Hollywood’s depiction of her.
A character based on her appeared in the 2009 film “The Blind Side,” featuring Sandra Bullock as the adoptive mother of star high school football player Michael Oher. In the movie, investigator Jocelyn Granger is a suited-up, dirt-sifting sleuth who interviews the student in a high-rise and won’t allow his mother to be in the room.
In real life, Thompson interviewed Oher in his living room, not in a conference room. His father sat through the entire conversation. She doesn’t recall what she was wearing, but it wasn’t a suit.
Thompson personifies the contradiction between how enforcement does its job and how the public, and perhaps even NCAA schools, think it’s done. Her bosses say she has a knack for finalizing cases through summary disposition, a process in which both sides agree to the facts. About two-thirds of enforcement’s top cases – those that reach Level I or II status in Division I or major in Divisions II and III – are handled that way. The other third head for hearings before a Committee on Infractions, where enforcement presents its allegations and the accused school or coach present their versions of events. The committee — composed of athletics administrators from member schools and even some members of the public — decides the case and hands down any penalties.
This summer, when Thompson presented allegations against a women’s basketball coach at a Committee on Infractions hearing, it was the first time she had appeared before the committee in six years.
“I want people at the end of the day to know that I was fair and that the violations are the right violations,” she says. “I want them to be able to look at a written product and say, ‘Yeah, Joyce got it right. What’s the point of going to a hearing?’”
When Thompson, previously a lawyer in state government, arrived at the NCAA 15 years ago, enforcement was a different department with different tactics. Cold calls — showing up uninvited at someone’s home or work in search of an interview — were more prevalent. A sole investigator was assigned to a case, responsible for everything. Today, they work together, searching for the best version of truth as a team.
Thompson still asks pointed questions alone, on the road in adversarial, hourslong interviews in which she faces not just coaches, boosters or athletics administrators, but also their lawyers. That part of the process may never go away.
But she spends as much time conferring with schools, helping them understand the process and giving them the information they need to decide how to wrap up an investigation.
“I don’t think people think about the enormous weight, as an investigator, that we carry,” Thompson says. “We’re not dealing with national security, but we are affecting people’s livelihoods. It’s not just a bunch of words on a page or allegations — for me it’s not. For me, it’s all the stuff that comes in between that people never see.”
Duncan and other leaders of the enforcement group gather around a small oval table in a conference room on a late May afternoon.
This spreadsheet review will be long and methodical, so Julie Powers, the associate director of quality control — the enforcement unit charged with ensuring investigations march forward with order and precision — begins with some levity. On the screen before them is a shot of race cars on the straightaway at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Who’s going to the race this weekend?” Powers asks.
The meeting is enforcement leadership’s chance to review the caseload, from the high-visibility investigations that will get reporters chattering to the lesser-known ones that might go unnoticed by the public. Each case is listed on a spreadsheet, and every line could damage a reputation, curtail a career or injure the relationship between a school and the NCAA. All the lines have one thing in common: On some campus, somewhere in the country, it is the most important case under investigation.
Powers moves to the second slide, and the tone of the room shifts as she breaks down the status of the cases. Five are awaiting an appeal. Five more are awaiting decisions by a Committee on Infractions representing Divisions I, II or III. For seven cases, investigators are checking into possible sources, public records and other documentation that might substantiate them. Twenty-two more are classified as preliminary cases, and 16 actively are being investigated. Ten others are ready for either a presentation to an infractions committee or a summary disposition.
The next slide breaks down 22 cases now considered “preliminary.” The critical information is listed: school name, investigator assigned, the latest update. Cases enforcement has spent 90 days reviewing so far are marked in red; those nearing 90 days are in yellow. The numbers are one of many benchmarks for the staff’s service, and Duncan uses the statistics in reports he submits to NCAA members.
The first case on the list: possible academic integrity violations at a school that failed to keep up on which students shouldn’t have been competing because they were academically ineligible. Derrick Crawford, a managing director of enforcement, laments that the school will be three weeks late delivering its report.
Up next: an impermissible benefits case for which investigators are awaiting a state audit report. And the third: a case that has spent months marked red on the preliminary list while the school completes a review of its academic data. A year has passed, and the investigation hasn’t started. “If we don’t get the report next week, let’s have a call with their compliance people,” Duncan says.
Regardless of the reason for the delays, the cases glow red on the screen. With 22 that haven’t yet moved into active investigations, each is a potential chink in enforcement’s promise to move efficiently.
The list continues. A football coach’s daughter has admitted that the team had hired her sorority to act as campus hosts for high school football players considering signing with the team; that case is about to move from preliminary to active. In another, a booster has admitted to posting bond for an arrested student-athlete — an impermissible benefit.
And in another, a coach is accused of turning in fraudulent expense receipts to his athletics department. “There’s also a criminal investigation going on with that one,” Crawford tells the room, “so he may have bigger problems than us.”
Forty-five minutes have passed. The top leaders of enforcement wrap up their discussion of preliminary investigations. Powers moves to the next spreadsheet.
“Here we go,” she says, starting once again with the first row. “The active cases.”
Mark Hicks is looking for a pen, a pencil, anything to help him draw a visual representation of the point he is trying to make. He wants to break down the scope of the enforcement group’s work and explain how the cases that make the news — the academic fraud, the paid-off recruits and the new cars in college athletes’ driveways — relate to the big picture.
Hicks, a managing director of enforcement, locates a blue dry-erase marker and, on the whiteboard beside him, draws a crude triangle.
He adds a horizontal line near the top. “The tip of the iceberg,” Hicks says of the cases that reach the big-screen spreadsheet reviewed by enforcement’s senior leaders in the case management meeting. Within that tip, 25 to 30 cases are delivered to a Committee on Infractions each year – and two-thirds of those are resolved by summary disposition, leaving the committee to decide only the penalties.
“And here,” he says, pointing to the area of the triangle below the tip, “you’ve got all the rest of it, underwater.”
The chunk below the surface is made up of a different set of rules violations handled by enforcement: Level III infractions in Division I and secondary violations in Divisions II and III. They tend to be more technical in nature, dealing not with academic fraud or expensive gifts for star athletes, but with violations that provide minimal advantage to rule-breakers. Enforcement processes about 5,000 of these each year, settling them not through a member committee but through a staff team devoted solely to college sports misdemeanors. They are processed, on average, within three days, require less obtrusive penalties, and are almost always self-reported by the schools.
Another piece of the triangle’s base: the leads, substantiated and otherwise, that arrive at enforcement’s doorstep. About 600 are received per year — by email, phone call or old-fashioned letter — from an opposing coach, a former athletics booster who changes allegiance or even an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend.
Hicks picks up his iPhone and scrolls through his alerts from enforcement’s intake system. On this day, 15 leads have come in. Sometimes the piece of information is benign. Other tips can include accusations of a student-athlete receiving thousands of dollars. The challenge: “How do you prove it?” he says. “There’s a lot of people who want to tell us stuff, but they don’t necessarily help us get to the bottom of it.”
After 10 years as a high school and Division II football coach, Hicks went to law school and began his NCAA career in the office of legal counsel. When college sports first encountered problems with “diploma mills” — so-called schools set up to graduate classes of students just to give them good enough grades to get onto a college team — Hicks joined the staff of the NCAA Eligibility Center and was dispatched to track the worst offenders. As a result, he began to see college sports’ underbelly: It looks, he says, like a hastily constructed log cabin in the Catskills with foil on the windows, junk cars in the driveway and a team of basketball players from Texas who were supposedly completing their high school education in that shanty.
Since transitioning to enforcement, Hicks has supervised eight staff members who work simply to build relationships. They attend coaches conventions, Amateur Athletic Union tournaments and scouting events, all so they can stay ahead of the trends in college sports and, hopefully, the next violations that will emerge from them.
“Over the past five to 10 years, we didn’t have a great reputation with our own membership,” Hicks says. “But we now take people from enforcement, and we go on campus when there’s not a problem. We talk to coaches, and we talk to AD’s. And what has happened is people are saying, ‘We don’t know what you’re doing, and we don’t know what this thing is called — but keep doing it.’”
“Madam chairman and members of the committee,” Thompson begins. “This case affirms the importance of hiring head coaches committed to following the rules because the tone they set for their program is the most important element in ensuring integrity.”
Thompson is presenting her case at the NCAA national office in the Theodore Roosevelt Room, named after the U.S. president who spawned the NCAA in hopes of making college sports safer. Her Division II Committee on Infractions hearing is still a month away. On this day, her audience is her colleagues – who can, Thompson admits, be just as intimidating.
If the case management meeting — when enforcement’s top leaders review the moving pieces of investigations — is the alpha of the internal process, the mock hearing is the omega. In this room, Thompson’s case is being reviewed by her peers, who single out her omissions or missteps. The process shows Thompson the holes and gaps in her case, pushing her to get it right before she delivers to the committee a month later.
This mock hearing is just the last stop in a series of interactions among investigators that make cases stronger and the effort behind them more collaborative. Review boards, charging discussions, allegation audits, discussions about investigative tactics — all are now part of the process and designed to ensure decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. “Fifteen years ago, I felt like I was on an island by myself, figuring out how to do the job effectively and efficiently,” Thompson says. “Now I don’t feel that way.”
Next to an enclave in the enforcement office that houses the coffeemaker and powdered Coffee-mate is a glass plaque that consumes a wall: “Provide high-quality service to member schools by developing, investigating and processing allegations in a fair, accurate, collaborative and timely manner.”
The reminders of why the investigators do what they do are on nearly every wall. The message is intentional, Duncan says, as are the occasional staff pizza lunches and candy-bar prizes during “NCAA Enforcement Trivia” at staff meetings. Because when his staff steps outside the office, the opposing voices depicted in the picture of the referee on Duncan’s wall will be everywhere, stomping out the ideals he wants driving his team.
“The world’s going to kick your teeth in,” Duncan says. “I hate that we’re so experienced at that, but this is the place where we come back to and take care of each other.”
Below the photo of the fray at the soccer game is a second image. In it, the umpires at the 2013 Division II Men’s Baseball Championship line up near home plate, flanked by the Tampa Spartans team assembled along the third base line and the Minnesota State Mankato Mavericks on the first.
Duncan calls this photo “enforcement in its ideal state.” The men have removed their hats, formed orderly lines, and fastened their gazes on an American flag positioned outside the photo’s frame. Despite disparate goals, the competitors and the umpires standing alongside them appear to be locked in a shared purpose.
NCAA enforcement will never reach that ideal state, of course. Millennia of cheating in competition won’t soon abate.
But the photo remains affixed to the wall, the goal always in plain sight.