DILEMMA IN THE NCAA: NOT ENOUGH COPS
The NCAA's enforcement division is straining these days under the largest caseload in its 34-year history. It is hard-pressed to prosecute all rules violations effectively. It is seemingly understaffed and underbudgeted. Enforcement officers suffer from low pay and job burnout and generally leave within two years. David Berst, head of NCAA enforcement, nevertheless insists that his staff is "in the thick of things" in investigating wrongdoing. At the same time, he concedes that his people can't do all the work themselves. In a striking admission of weakness, he says the NCAA increasingly leaves preliminary sleuthing to the press, whose revelations about abuses are "a catalyst" for NCAA investigations.
It is hard to know whether the backlog of cases reflects an actual increase in cheating, although it would seem so. What is certain is that zealous newspaper investigations of college sports have brought more cheating—or allegations of it—to light. Recent newspaper reports have told of alleged improper payments to football players at Texas and Houston. These are just the latest charges to embroil the Southwest Conference; seven of nine SWC schools have either been investigated by the NCAA or have operated under a cloud of suspicion during the past two years. There have also been allegations of abuses at Memphis State (payments to basketball players, recruiting), Kentucky (improper payments), LSU (recruiting), Minnesota (boosters funding the defense of a basketball player on trial for rape) and other schools.
In trying to keep on top of the situation, the NCAA has beefed up its enforcement arm from three full-time staffers a decade ago to 12 full-time and 25 part-time (mostly ex- FBI agents in major cities) people today. Yet as Charles Alan Wright, Texas law professor and chairman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions from 1978 to '83, says, "The enforcement arm was always overworked. My guess is, it's still undermanned."
Former NCAA enforcement agent Ron Watson goes further. Watson, 36, who left the NCAA last May after 18 months and is now an assistant athletic director at Tulane, told SI that the strains on NCAA investigators are enormous. Most of the agents are in their late 20s or early 30s, hold advanced degrees and are former athletes or coaches. "They can't keep up with all the major cases and do the smaller ones, too," Watson says. Watson tells of the emotional drain of being "treated like the plague" by the subjects of investigations and being constantly lied to. "It got to me," he says. So did the low pay: College grads start at about $22,000, those with law degrees at around $26,000. Watson says he and others who left enforcement "stepped up $8,000 to $10,000 just by leaving." Worst of all was spending six months a year on the road. Watson's marriage ended in divorce. "It wasn't all due to [the job], but it did have an impact," he says. "You come home and say, 'Who is this person I'm living with on weekends?' " Because of the work conditions, says Watson, "they've lost a lot of good people."
Berst's claim that the NCAA is in the thick of things isn't fully supported by the evidence. For one thing, reliance on newspaper revelations doesn't spare the NCAA its own legwork. Take its Kentucky investigation, which was prompted by articles in the Lexington Herald-Leader and is causing the NCAA difficulty. "A large number of players quoted in the articles said they received money [from boosters]," says Berst. "The same people aren't saying that to us. When such matters become public, we have considerable difficulty in getting people to repeat their remarks."
The NCAA complains that its hands are tied because of its lack of subpoena power. But Duke law professor John C. Weistart, a frequent commentator on the state of sports, argues that the NCAA could make its enforcement efforts more effective by creating incentives for member schools to get their boosters and former players to cooperate with investigators. Such incentives would provide a sort of de facto subpoena power.
The NCAA seems reluctant to take action to strengthen its enforcement division. Why not hire more personnel? Why not increase the enforcement division's $1.89 million annual budget and raise salaries? "A relatively modest, rather ineffectual enforcement mechanism may be the product of a series of small choices made by the NCAA," says Weistart. "I'm coming more and more to the view that large numbers of people in Division I sports really are prepared to tolerate a high level of violations."
Berst and others in the NCAA deny this. And yet they have been more and more inclined to take a tough stand against trivial, easy-to-prove violations—suspending Indiana basketball player Steve Afford for posing for a sorority charity calendar, for instance—while cases involving serious allegations of wrongdoing at Memphis State, LSU and other schools drag on. "And if an investigation goes three or four years, it loses its potency," says Watson. "The kids have left—there's no immediate impact on the people involved. The manpower just isn't there to cover the whole country and all the conferences in a fair manner."
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