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July 24, 2011

Comply away

Today marks the first installment of a five-day series on the issue that has dominated college sports headlines in recent months -- compliance, cheating, enforcement, scandal, pick your favorite one-word description -- and how it relates to Michigan State.

    Five days, a total of 19 individual stories, based on interviews with more than 30 people, who gave more than 40,000 words in quotes from which to choose. Some on the phone, some in person, and the key figures at MSU (Mark Hollis, Tom Izzo, Mark Dantonio, associate AD for compliance Jennifer Smith) all sat down with me and answered every question I asked. Smith sat down with me twice. Izzo for four hours. That  cooperation on some sensitive – and at times, downright uncomfortable -- topics bears noting.
    To be clear from the start, this is not a “gotcha” story. It’s also not a direct reaction to the Ohio State situation, or the Izzo suspension, or any one thing, though both issues are addressed along with many others. More than anything, this is a conversation -- about exactly what is going on, what may be going on, how MSU is trying to avoid situations like the one in Columbus, what the NCAA is doing to deter such situations, and why things seem to be getting worse. Or better. Depending on your perspective. I learned a lot in the course of reporting on this series, especially in the areas of agents and compliance departments, and hopefully readers will gain something as well. If nothing else, this will chew up some time as we gear up for the start of Big Ten football media days on Thursday.
    The first day is sort of a “macro” day, an overview of some of the big-picture issues before we get more specific.
    Here’s where MSU is and the challenges it faces.

    A look at Jennifer Smith, MSU's associate AD for compliance.
    A chime in on the paying players discussion.
    Some cheating basics.
    And a look at the determination of some in the NCAA to clean things up despite some challenges that many overlook when trashing the organization. Understand this: Julie Roe Lach and her people in enforcement are paid to police a nation of suspected cheaters with limited resources, and I believe they’re serious about their job.
    If you want to point a finger, the Committee on Infractions is a more deserving target. For example, the enforcement staff did its job on Cam Newton. The COI then stunned everyone with its ruling.
    Here are two things I believe about cheating.
    * It happens everywhere to some extent.
    * Just because violations are found in someone’s program does not mean that person is suddenly a bad person.
    I have been a bit disturbed the character assassination that has gone on with Jim Tressel. But that is how things are today.
    (By the way, things look much better for OSU now that the NCAA has ruled out failing to monitor, but more penalties could be coming -- and let’s not forget, Ohio State has lost one of the most successful coaches in Big Ten history and a talented senior quarterback out of this. That's far from unscathed. That's quite scathed).
    When it was revealed, after John Wooden was gone, that his program was essentially as dirty as they come –- Sam Gilbert keeping his players well paid –- I heard no one attacking Wooden’s character. But now you’re scum if something happens on your watch. I just think things are much more complex than that.
    And I feel that way about the NCAA as well. I’ve piled on just as forcefully as everyone else at times, but it’s just way too simplistic to say “They protect the big boys,” or “They don’t care.”
    That said, the Cam Newton and Sugar Bowl decisions are appalling. And they strike at the credibility, even as Roe Lach and her people work so hard to build it.
    “The question is, are you trying to enforce your rules, or are you trying to enforce enough of the rules that you can keep the rules?” Dan Wetzel said. “What are you really doing here?”
    Wetzel, by the way, was my choice for a national media voice, because I don’t think anyone out there has covered this topic more extensively or pointedly in the past decade or so. I tried to get perspectives from all relevant corners -- the NCAA, MSU officials and coaches, officials and coaches from other schools, former players, media, high school coaches, AAU coaches and labeled vagabonds. Sonny Vaccaro and Chris Grier Luchey made this stronger by speaking with me and speaking frankly.
    Like Wetzel, they are cynical when it comes to NCAA intentions.
    “That doesn’t make it morally correct or incorrect  just because the NCAA comes out with a rule and says, ‘OK, now you can’t do that,’” said Grier Luchey, whose personal story will be a big part of the fourth day and its emphasis on AAU basketball. “That’s all I’m saying. But I’m all for following the rules, but the NCAA can arbitrarily … it’s their business.
    “Nobody comments on the NCAA making 6 zillion dollars on the TV deal or the fact that they have a bidding war between CBS, TNT, ESPN and whoever else, Fox Sports on who’s gonna get the chance to broadcast the NCAA Tournament. If we’re talking strictly morals here, who’s right and who’s wrong? I don’t know. I mean the NCAA profits more off basketball players as amateurs more than anyone in the entire world. As amateurs.”
    And it can easily be argued that coaches competing at the highest level can’t do it without a little extra here and there to the top recruits. That many college athletes couldn’t care less for the NCAA rulebook and its ramifications. That most people at NCAA headquarters outside the enforcement staff just want these stories to go away. That the people who care most are fans -- when they lose a top recruit to a rival and chatter angrily that something funny MUST have been going on. And then you have reporters, snooping around, doing their best to uncover cheaters so they can win writing awards and make more money. Hey, if we’re going to be cynical, let’s be cynical.
    I’m sometimes frustrated that some beat writers aren’t aggressive enough about this stuff. I do believe you have to treat a sports beat like a news beat as much as possible. The public depends on our news reporters to hold local government accountable, and it’s an important job. The interesting thing about this is, some would argue that uncovering dirt on the local college sports team might actually be a disservice to the community. But it’s the job.
    My take on MSU hasn’t changed by doing this project. I think MSU is trying to do things the right way, while pushing the boundaries because they must be pushed. And that’s what I think some readers will be surprised by at times. I think people don’t realize that MSU’s coaches have to be “in waters,” as Tom Izzo puts it, that can be a bit murky. I do think the Big Ten is in pretty good shape right now (Dane Fife called it “the Bible belt”) and much better shape than some leagues.
    But then again, sometimes I wonder what the big deal is. Some of these kids have no money and they’re making you big money and you have extra. Who wouldn’t help them out a little bit? NCAA rules, after all, are not laws. It’s very easy to rationalize cheating –- clearly, much easier than it is to deter cheating.
    I can go on and on and around and around, but instead, here's a glossary and some cutting-room quotes:

    Glossary of terms:
    NCAA: The National Collegiate Athletic Association, an association of universities formed in 1906 to organize their athletic programs. It began enforcing rules in 1952. One thing to remember: In essence, the NCAA is the schools.

    Enforcement: The staff of 38 paid employees who investigate potential NCAA violations around the country. They work out of NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis.

    Committee on Infractions: The staff of 10 volunteers, typically athletic administrators and faculty members from various schools and conferences, along with outside lawyers, who act as the “judge and jury” in cases brought by the enforcement staff. They serve three-year terms and can be appointed a maximum of three times.

    Infractions Appeals Committee: Another volunteer committee, with the same term guidelines as the Committee on Infractions, that judges cases that are appealed. It consists of five members.

    Major infraction: Defined by the NCAA as providing “an extensive recruiting or competitive advantage.” Schools found guilty of major infractions usually receive serious penalties such as a reduction in scholarships, recruiting restrictions and bans on postseason play.

    Secondary violation: Defined as “isolated and inadvertent,” they usually result in minimal penalties such as letters of reprimand.

    Death penalty: A popular term (but not official NCAA term) for the banning of a school’s sport from competing for at least one year. It can also include elimination of athletics aid in that sport for two years and the school losing its NCAA voting privileges for four years. The last “death penalty” handed out to a Division I school went to Southern Methodist University football for the 1987 and 1988 seasons.

    AAU: The Amateur Athletic Union, a nonprofit sports organization of volunteers that was founded in 1888. Several sports are offered, but the one that gets the most attention – or notoriety – is AAU basketball. However, much of the summer basketball that serves as the battleground for college recruiting is not actually affiliated with the AAU.

    IAWP: An NCAA acronym that stands for Individual Associated With a Prospect. The enforcement staff is trying to crack down on schools giving benefits to people who have relationships with potential prospects.

    IAWRP: An Individual Associated With a Recruited Prospect. There are more restrictions placed on an IAWRP, because he/she has a relationship with a prospect that the school in question is actively recruiting. MSU’s employment of an IAWRP at a basketball camp last summer resulted in a secondary violation and one-game suspension for MSU men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo.

    Sports agent: A person who negotiates contracts of employment and endorsement for an athlete. There are about 750 NFL agents, but only about 100 with five or more clients. Many agents have fledgling operations that battle in an extremely competitive environment. Agents get about 4 percent of a client’s annual salary.

    Runner: An employee of an agent, someone who tries to influence potential clients to sign with the agent. Runners often are found around college athletes and many are said to offer gifts and cash to woo athletes. It’s against NCAA rules for athletes to accept.

    Subcontractor: An NCAA term for an individual who acts as a runner even though he/she doesn’t actually work for an agent. Subcontractors try to gain influence with athletes, then shop that influence to various agents.

    Extra quotes:

    * Izzo on cheating: “To me what a cheating school is, cheating means doing things that would cause the player to make the decision in your favor. Is an extra phone call cheating? That won’t make the decision for a player. Is a car? Yes it is. You get into foundations and everything, it’s sophisticated.”
    * Izzo on paying players: “You know, if you constantly pay people to do everything … I was a GA at 28 making $4,700, you know, isn’t that what it’s all about? If you’re good enough to be a pro, then go be a pro. That’s why we have the pro leagues, to me. To me. Now I’m in favor of giving guys a little something on necessity, but where would it end? What is necessity? Is a car a necessity? OK, maybe it is. A $40,000 car over a $10,000 car a necessity? Where does it end?”
    * Julie Roe Lach on where her staff stands: “I’m not arrogant enough to think we do have our arms around everything, but I do think we’re moving in the right direction and we’re trying to make some changes to continue to do that, both from an operational standpoint to streamline things as well as investing resources in what I heard from the membership and what we continue to hear are the key priorities.”
    * Jennifer Smith on whether the NCAA is under-staffed: “It’s just gotten to be such red tape. It’s gotten to be so … you know, trying to get Arthur Ray Jr. to be able to be on the football field is a five-day process, where it should take somebody with some common sense two hours. It’s just gotten to be so big and so much red tape, it’s not as effective.”
    * Smith on how strong cases seem to weaken by the time they get to the Committee on Infractions: “I think it gets so watered down by the time it gets to the Committee on Infractions. And every coach has his own lawyer and, you know, every school hires an attorney. And you can explain a lot away the longer you have. And by the time it gets to the (COI), everybody’s lawyered up and they can state their case.”
    * Wetzel on the NCAA’s apparent revived interest in going after cheaters: “They either need to rewrite the rules or they need to get tougher enforcing their rules. And for a long time they were neither. And I think that’s where you really have problems, because the rules are not always sensical. And then they’re just arbitrarily enforced. So it’s almost like do one or the other. I’d prefer rewriting.
    “I do think they’re certainly catching more people now. I mean, there was a stretch when they didn’t catch anybody. And the idea that no one was doing anything doesn’t really make sense. But I think they can certainly go a lot further, they can put way more into enforcement. Or their infractions committee can be way more consistent and tougher. My thing is, hold the coaches and the administrators to a higher standard than the players, which I think often isn’t the case. So there’s a lot to do. But I do think they’re more committed to it now than they were a few years ago. … There’s a new wave of people in and I do think they’re earnest. Time will tell, but USC, Ohio State, Oregon, Connecticut. These are the big programs so it doesn’t look like they’re focusing the way they did, maybe, away from those schools. If there’s trouble it looks like they’ll go after them.”
    * Wetzel with more on paying players: “Believe me, in the NFL lockout situation, the owners can come up with an argument saying the players don’t deserve any more than $50,000 a year. They can make that argument. ‘That Peyton Manning, he’s just not worth it,’ you know? But we know otherwise. Because they have a fight. There’s a real fight. They have lawyers and they have negotiators and they have power. They’re adults and they’ve figured it out. Every few years they have these fights. There’s never a fight in college sports. It’s just the same people making the money going, ‘Well, we’ll form a committee or a task force,’ you know. You can’t have 100 consecutive years without any strike. No industry in the world has done that. Except this one.”

    One last thing. Vacation days are all used up and I’m going to be in your face like Judge Reinhold (as Aaron, The Close Talker) until spring football 2012 ends.

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Joe Rexrode
MSU Sports Reporter
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