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inside the moat
Steve Rushin
March 03, 1997
BEHIND THE FORBIDDING FACADE OF NCAA HEADQUARTERS, THE VERY PEOPLE WHO ENFORCE THE ORGANIZATION'S RIGID RULES ALSO QUESTION ITS GODLIKE POWERS AND ULTIMATE MISSION
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March 03, 1997

Inside The Moat

BEHIND THE FORBIDDING FACADE OF NCAA HEADQUARTERS, THE VERY PEOPLE WHO ENFORCE THE ORGANIZATION'S RIGID RULES ALSO QUESTION ITS GODLIKE POWERS AND ULTIMATE MISSION

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Speaking of French history, if any one man within the NCAA is Victor Hugo's Inspector Javert, it is David Berst, who spent 20 years pursuing the resilient loaf of Wonder bread that is Jerry Tarkanian. Arrive 20 minutes late for an appointment with Berst, and the NCAA receptionist smells your fear. "Sit down and try to relax," she counsels unconvincingly. "He's a very easygoing man." One gets the impression she has done this before.

This is the principal's office of college athletics. Berst's 19 full-time investigators uncover infractions that are deemed either "major" or "secondary," just as the Catholic Church distinguishes mortal from venial sins. "There are too many rules," says Berst, his 6'4" frame zigzagged across a chair in his office. He is speaking now about "secondary" sins. "This is the area where people say, 'The rules are too complex; you need a manual to understand them.' And we generally agree." Three thousand times a year schools report to his office that they've made a mistake: A player has illicitly purchased an ice-cream cone or illegally received a lift across campus. Rule 13.7.5.7.1 actually addresses the propriety of a recruit's "dessert or after-dinner snack at the coach's residence." Such cases are generally resolved with a blizzard of correspondence and often result in an athlete's missing a single practice.

It is the major cases that engage Berst, "the kind in which you don't need a manual to understand that you did something wrong," as he puts it. "That's usually an offer or provision of money or like items, or the manipulation of academic records." He speaks in the staccato legalese of the rule book. "Everyone" Berst continues, "knows those things are improper." The NCAA completes 20 to 25 such investigations a year. By Berst's estimate, 10% of the member schools are wanton cheaters.

If the "provision of money"—at least some money—weren't illegal, there would be fewer rules to be broken, and thus fewer rule breakers, no? "If the line were drawn a little higher on amateurism, there might be fewer people inclined to leap over that line," Berst concurs. "Maybe they would think the rules were more reasonable. It seems appropriate to hope for that."

Still, loosening the necktie of amateurism will not substantially reduce Berst's workload. "I've never subscribed to the view that there's one particular change that would eliminate cheating in intercollegiate athletics," he says. "I think cheating is fundamental to what humans are like."

What humans are like. The comic Damon Wayans has said, "I like the concept of people, but people ruin it." There's a bit of that despair in Berst, who sees one element common to all major violators: "They forgot what their values were." Every day his office receives up to 20 letters, phone calls, faxes and E-mail transmissions from coaches, boosters, athletic directors, students, parents, reporters—"every conceivable source," Berst says—alleging new violations at NCAA schools. "We're always trying to figure out who has an ax to grind," he says. "But you can have an ax to grind and still be telling the truth."

The enforcement staff's work is reactive, based entirely on tips, and all the nation is its stool pigeon. (In fact, the schools that most concern NCAA staffers are those not self-reporting violations because 100% compliance with the rules is deemed impossible.) Many of the investigators have law degrees, all are poorly paid, and most are treated as lepers when they arrive on a college campus. Justus, the education resources director, was a legal-aid attorney before she became an NCAA investigator in 1984. "It was isolating," she says of her 2½-year stint as a gumshoe. Justus (pronounced JUS-tice, almost parodic for an NCAA investigator) lasted longer than most; she was an optimist who could always see the specimen jar as half full. "I got to play Charles Kuralt," she says, putting the best possible face on things. "I got to talk to mothers on front porches."

"You spend a lot of time talking to people who aren't telling you the truth," says Berst, who also came to the NCAA as an investigator, in 1972. "And when you do that week in and week out, you begin to wonder whether anyone cares if you're doing it correctly."

Oh, some people care. The NCAA investigative staff has been thoroughly investigated. Don Yaeger (now an SI staff writer) spent two years doing just that for his 1991 book, Undue Process: The NCAA's Injustice for All, which garroted the enforcement staff for refusing to allow its interrogations to be tape-recorded; for relying on the handwritten summaries of investigators; for allowing a single incident—say, the recruiting of an athlete on a weekend—to be recorded as nine or 10 rule violations. The Committee on Infractions, chaired by Oklahoma law professor David Swank, serves as judge and jury once evidence against a program is collected, but it cannot cross-examine witnesses. The accused is afforded little of the due process that he would be granted in a U.S. courtroom.

No one knows this better than Sandy D'Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association who became president of Florida State in 1993. Two years later the Seminoles' football program was investigated regarding allegations of free-sneaker sprees at Foot Locker and of players' hobnobbing with agents. After being probed for 11 months, the program was given a year's probation but not banned from postseason play or from making television appearances.

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