- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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The folks charged with enforcing the NCAA's byzantine rulebook have not had a banner year. NCAA enforcement staff have always had a thankless job. No one likes to feel the blunt end of the bylaws. But recent months have represented a historical nadir. The Shabazz Muhammad foul-up would have been embarrassing enough, but unethical behavior in the Miami investigation and the institutional memory lost in the ensuing exodus of long-tenured staffers -- some forced out, some merely fed up -- has been devastating. At this point, it's fair to wonder whether the NCAA can actually enforce its rules at all.
Interim enforcement chief Johnathan Duncan stepped into this rather wide breach in March, when he was given 18 months to turn things around. This weekend, Duncan spoke with The Associated Press, where he announced a new plan for the enforcement staff -- a pilot program designed to put staffers on campuses as frequently as possible, but probably not for the reasons you would think. From the AP:
"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." […]
"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."
Duncan also told the AP that membership has expressed concerns "that our staff member could benefit from better training in investigative techniques and interviewing techniques," though he made sure to assert that he wasn't "suggesting that doesn't happen now."
It's tough to know whether this pilot program will achieve results, or how those results would be measured in the first place. But at this point, distrust of enforcement is so high -- not only among fans, but among schools, too -- that even if this program really comes down to outreach, it is surely worth the time. Maybe it becomes the modus operandi. Maybe it leads to more robust investigations. Maybe it merely helps athletic departments feel better. Whatever the result, it can't hurt.
Of course, that is just one very minor piece of the puzzle. Whatever you think about the NCAA's hypocrisy — and after the Great Jay Bilas Apparel Revolution of 2013, even NCAA president Mark Emmert is using that word — even the most pessimistic (or optimistic, I guess?) projections for amateurism's inevitable death knell are still years out at best. Right now, the NCAA has a rulebook that its membership voted on and agreed to, and a mandate from that membership to ensure an even playing field through the thorough enforcement of those rules. Duncan is being proactive in his attempts to bring his mostly greenhorn investigators up to speed, and spending some time on campuses getting familiar with the struggle is important to that effect. But on campus or off, friendly or not, the fundamental issue is credibility. If you're going to have rules, someone has to enforce them. The facade crumbles quickly.