- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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When NCAA president Mark Emmert assumed office in November 2010, he arrived with an agenda, one he was happy to discuss with the media. Emmert's plans were nothing less than a total logistical overhaul of the organization he inherited, from his push for stipend plans on down.
Enforcement is where Emmert's reforms were first felt. The new NCAA president wanted a streamlined rulebook with fewer silly bylaws and less confusion about the enforcement process in general. But he likewise wanted the rules the NCAA did have -- the ones it believes keep the amateur model from collapsing into some sort of anarchy -- to be aggressively enforced when broken. He specifically referred to the psychological "cost-benefit analysis" players, coaches and administrators consider when setting out to break a rule: "We cannot have coaches, administrators, parents or student-athletes sitting out there deciding: 'Is this worth the risk? If I conduct myself in this fashion and I get caught, it's still worth the risk.'"
Three years later, that cost-benefit analysis is something close to a no-brainer, and not in the way Emmert designed.
That's the crux of a Wednesday column by Yahoo!'s Pat Forde, who details one of the most underrated stories of the college hoops offseason: the apparent collapse of NCAA enforcement. In the past 18 months, Emmert has lost enforcement head Julie Roe Lach as well as Marcus Wilson, Chance Miller, Dave Didion, Rich Johanningmeier, Abby Grantstein, Ameen Najjar, and Bill Benjamin, with more expected to leave the besieged department in coming months. Most of those names, save maybe Grantstein (whose boyfriend was the alleged blabbermouth that led to the forfeiture of the NCAA's case against UCLA prospect Shabazz Muhammad), might not mean anything to you. But they were all key, on-the-ground cogs in Emmert's rebuilt enforcement machine. Some were lost to the fallout from the Miami scandal, which did damage not only to personnel but to the entire enforcement staff's reputation. Some merely quit. All are gone, which leaves a battered NCAA with far less institutional memory and savvy at one of the most crucial enforcement junctures in modern organizational history.
As Forde writes, that can mean one thing: Open season for cheaters!
If you're an agent or runner looking to pay your way into a player's inner circle, go for it. If you're a coach looking for a corner-cutting advantage in recruiting, take a shot. If you're a player or recruit seeking an impermissible benefit or an academic quick fix, no time like the present.
The NCAA enforcement division – the most scrutinized, controversial and perhaps vital part of the entire organization – is in crisis mode. It is short-handed. It is suffering from an alarming brain drain and morale deficit. It has been beaten into a corner by the backfired Miami football investigation and subsequent fallout.
And that's before you consider all of the normal challenges NCAA enforcement staff have to face, and all of the new things -- the Internet, disposable cell phones, outright fan hostility, savvier methods of routing money and other extra benefits, the delegitimizing effect of the Miami case -- that arguably make the job harder than ever. Being an NCAA enforcement officer is like being a cop with less authority. It means showing up on campus and immediately being regarded with suspicion or outright derision. It means enforcing rules that aren't necessarily that popular in the first place. No wonder it's hard to keep people on the job. It can't be any easier to find replacements.
It's not all doom and gloom from the NCAA's perspective, necessarily. The current enforcement staff is down a handful of people. Pat writes that "when the NCAA hosted several hundred university compliance directors for a seminar on Tuesday, it announced that enforcement was seeking to make five hires – a significant number of openings in a department that normally has a staffing of 60" -- but that overall number is still up from the 41 enforcement officers the staff wielded in 2010, at the dawn of Emmert's tenure. And, in her own piece published Wednesday, Lach herself maintained a positive outlook, explaining in clear detail why the enforcement process was a) important, b) on the cusp of a new era, and c) why university presidents and other campus officials need to support it, not undermine it.
Even so, there's no escaping the fact that the NCAA is facing not only massive unpopularity and doubts about its legitimacy, but a major, concrete deficit of talent and experience precisely at the moment it needs those qualities the most. "Amateurism" and "student-athlete" are tidy highfalutin ideals, but they don't exist in a vacuum. The question is this: Without enforcement, can they continue to exist at all?