INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The NCAA will soon be sending enforcement staff members back to school.
Interim enforcement chief Jonathan Duncan told The Associated Press he wants investigators to spend more time on college campuses so they can get a glimpse into the real-life challenges of running and policing athletic departments in today's work.
"One of the things I hear is that our staff sometimes lacks an understanding of what campus life is really like," Duncan said. "So we are piloting a program where our staff will work on campus with athletic directors, compliance staff members and coaches and walk in their shoes so that we have a true understanding of what goes on."
While the program is new, the concept is not.
School leaders frequently complain the NCAA rulebook is overloaded and outdated and sometimes brand NCAA officials as out-of-touch with the ever-changing, multimillion-dollar world of college sports. There are potential pitfalls everywhere on campuses that are largely open to the public — and presumably open to troubling influences like associates of unscrupulous agents. Those contacts can jeopardize a player's eligibility and get coaches and programs in serious trouble.
The consequences are greater now that the new enforcement policies have officially taken effect. The new rules hold coaches more accountable for their actions and those of their staff. Rules violations could lead to suspensions of up to one year. To avoid potentially damaging and costly punishments, school leaders also will have an opportunity to demonstrate to the infractions committee what they did to create a culture of compliance on campus.
But Duncan wants his staff members to get a firsthand look at the new normal. Details of the plan are still being worked out.
"In the coming weeks and months, we will continue working and communicating with NCAA staff and the members," he wrote Friday in an email to the AP. "The program will place different levels of enforcement staff members on campus for varying amounts of time to provide a greater understanding of the campus experience."
That's not the only change Duncan has planned.
"There are those who believe in the membership that our staff members could benefit from better training in investigative techniques and interviewing techniques," Duncan said. "We are going to provide that training so that a good investigation will be done timely and professionally, though I'm not suggesting that doesn't happen now."
This new way of thinking is part of Duncan's broad plan to rebuild the enforcement staff's tattered reputation.
In January, NCAA President Mark Emmert announced a rogue enforcement official ignored the governing body's own policies and the advice of higher-ups to improperly collect evidence against the University of Miami. Emmert promised to scrub the investigation of any evidence obtained improperly.
In February, after releasing details of an external review into what happened, Julie Roe Lach was ousted as the NCAA's top cop and Duncan was appointed as interim chief. He's been given an 18-month trial run. It certainly hasn't been an easy transition for the former Kansas City attorney, who took over a department that needed a morale boost in mid-March.
"Certainly it's been a difficult time in enforcement," he said. "They are tough, hard-working, good people but they are human. I think morale is good and I think it will continue to improve."
There are plenty of questions, too.
Some wonder whether an NCAA outsider can be an effective enforcement leader during the turmoil, while others suggest the exodus of experienced staff members leaves the staff short-handed at a time rules violations appear to be increasing.
Duncan discounts both arguments, pointing out he has been doing NCAA work for years and that even at less than full staff, the enforcement division can function at full capacity. In fact, he's planning to bring in more staff members from campuses. He's also planning to hire a director of quality control, a newly-created position that will help the NCAA provide better service to schools.
"Of course it will be nice when we're fully staffed, but we are working hard," Duncan said, explaining he hopes to have all the replacements hired by the end of the year. "We work on cases as a team, and the work does continue. I know there are critics who doubt that, but they don't know what we're doing."
What Duncan has attempted to do is change the way the enforcement staff operates.
He has asked schools for suggestions, used technological advances to improve the process and update forms and attempted to give schools better "customer service."
What else? Well, he's had investigators combing through rulebooks.
"They do receive training on that, but it needs to be more intense and they have to have better access to real-time, more in-depth information about the bylaws," Duncan said. "Our staff is charged with enforcing all of the rules in the book, times three, because of Division I, Division II and Division III. That's a lot. The rules are different, and I don't think sometimes that people understand the breadth of the bylaws in all three divisions."
But the overall goal has not changed, and getting staff members back on campus could help.
"I think what membership wants," Duncan said, "is a strong, aggressive enforcement department that operates within the NCAA's beliefs."