Changing Landscape

As the investigation into Ohio State's improper benefits scandal deepens, more attention is being placed on its compliance staff. While the culpability of the Buckeye staffers is still to be determined, the mushrooming problems also serve to highlight a fundamental flaw in the system – one that affects every member school of the NCAA, including West Virginia.

That problem is a simple one – an ever-changing set of rules, decisions and precedents which compliance staffs are forced to learn, teach to their coaches and enforce. The current edition of the NCAA manual spans 444 pages, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are NCAA decisions and interpretations (currently more than 7,000 and growing) and yearly changes that often number in the hundreds. There's probably no one on the planet that knows every rule, or could predict what sort of interpretation might be made by the NCAA.

A second, related problem is the fact that the NCAA doesn't provide standards or recommended "best practices" for compliance staffs to follow, and until quite recently, there were no such standards, suggested or otherwise, in place for member schools to follow. That fact makes building a defense very difficult, especially when the NCAA levels the most severe of charges against a school. West Virginia Associate Athletic Director for Compliance and Governance Kelli Cunningham explains.

"There is no set of procedures that, if followed, would absolve a school of 'lack of institutional control' or 'failure to monitor' or any of the other major penalties that get assessed against compliance offices and the school," she said. "For example, we might set a policy to make two visits per week to practices for a sport, and then do that. But after the fact, when a problem occurs, the NCAA might say that we should have gone three times per week. Without standards, there's no way for us to know what standards we should meet."

Cunningham isn't the only compliance officer to point out the shortcomings of NCAA standards. She, along with many of her peers, are members of the National Association for Athletics Compliance, which is composed of compliance professionals across the country, and one of that organization's top priorities has been the development of a set of standards for compliance offices that if followed, would show that the office was making every reasonable effort to monitor and control regulated athletic activities. Last fall, the association announced standards within three areas of current NCAA legislation. The standards, developed with the cooperation of athletics directors, conference commissioners, and NCAA enforcement staff members, cover the areas of countable athletically related activities, complimentary admissions and recruiting contacts and evaluations.

"We are pushing to set reasonable standards for what Compliance needs to do and have the NCAA agree to that," Cunningham said.

While it's a good first step, there are still miles to go. First, the three areas in the NAAC standards cover just a handful of the bylaws in the NCAA Manual. While not every by-law is a matter for compliance review, there are many more areas to be addressed. Second, there is still no guarantee that the NCAA will totally exonerate a compliance department even if it follows the recommended standards. Included at the end of each of the recommended standards is a paragraph which states that individual schools may have needs that require more action than listed in the standard, and that the "NCAA Enforcement Staff will give consideration to these standards in reviewing whether institutions have implemented adequate education, systems and monitoring." There's no guarantee, however, that following those practices will allow a school to defend itself successfully from the failure to monitor or lack of institutional control charges.

All of that might seem to have brought schools right back where they started, but at least those that follow the NAAC standards can show their good faith efforts to follow standards that were developed with the best of intentions. However, unless the NCAA is prepared to say that schools following those standards can't be charged with those serious violations, compliance staffers will continue to play a game with an ever-changing set of rules.

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