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Toughest jobs in sports: NCAA enforcement staff member

NCAA enforcement
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The NCAA's enforcement division is reponsible for policing college athletics (USATSI)

This is the seventh of eight entries in a Yahoo Sports series on the toughest jobs in sports. Click here to check out previous stories and a schedule for what's to come.

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In his three previous jobs, Derrick Crawford ferreted out government corruption as a special agent with the FBI, targeted white-collar criminals as a state prosecutor in Alabama and protected the NFL from lawsuits as general counsel for the league.

He insists those positions were easy compared to his current one.

Crawford rejoined the NCAA's enforcement division about 18 months ago as a managing director responsible for overseeing investigations. He is one of the highest-ranking members of an almost 60-person department under immense pressure to crack down on cheating in college athletics yet handicapped by low morale, charges of impropriety and insufficient investigative authority.

NCAA investigators must apprehend wrongdoers without having the power to subpoena uncooperative witnesses, request search warrants or penalize false testimony with perjury charges the way law enforcement agencies would. Student-athletes, coaches and university administrators risk severe sanctions if they don't provide enforcement staffers with truthful answers or pertinent documents, but investigators have no means of compelling family, friends, high school coaches and others outside of NCAA jurisdiction to cooperate.

"This is the most challenging position I've ever had in my 25-year professional career," Crawford said. "The college landscape has changed over the years. The competitive pressure on our membership to win is even greater than it was 10 or 15 years ago. That makes it very difficult. Plus, we are an investigative body but we aren't law enforcement. When I started working here the first time, I was really surprised how many powers I had in federal law enforcement that we don't have here. We have a number of tools in our tool kit, but what we don't have makes our job tougher."

At a time when cheaters in college athletics have become more motivated and more sophisticated than ever because of the pressure to win and the money at stake, the ramifications of not giving the enforcement division sufficient investigative clout are especially dire. Many major violations go undetected or unproven because NCAA investigators begin each case at a disadvantage.    

An enforcement staffer knocked on the doors of 30 potential witnesses during a recent investigation of a high-profile football program, but all but one refused to help her since they knew she had no subpoena power. Last year, the NCAA also had to drop its investigation into former Duke standout Lance Thomas' 2009 purchase of $100,000 worth of jewelry during his senior season because neither the ex-Blue Devil forward nor the jeweler agreed to testify after reaching a settlement and investigators had no way to entice them to change their minds.

"The most frustrating part of the job was not being able to get people to talk to you or not being able to get the documents or records you need to get to the truth," said Julie Roe Lach, who worked for the NCAA for 15 years and served as vice president of enforcement from Oct. 2010 to Feb. 2013. "That's far and away the No. 1 frustration people on the enforcement staff encounter, and usually it happens many times in your career. Sometimes you even know what's out there based on media reports, but you can't prove it."

If patience and persistence are characteristics NCAA investigators require to endure those discouraging setbacks, the ability to endure criticism is just as important.

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More from the 'Toughest Jobs in Sports' Series:
Introducing the series
July 21: Manny Pacquiao's sparring partner
July 22: World Cup referee
July 23: Colorado Rockies pitcher
July 24: Publicist for Alex Rodriguez
July 25: Ice maker, Arizona Coyotes
July 26: Baseball card shop owner
July 27: NCAA enforcement staff member
July 28: Professional gambler

High-profile cases typically inspire intense media scrutiny while the enforcement staff conducts its investigation, reviews the facts and determines if there is sufficient evidence that either an individual athlete or an institution committed violations. Once the NCAA's reinstatement committee determines the penalty for an athlete or committee on infractions settles on a punishment for an institution, the backlash often reaches a crescendo, whether from coaches angry their program was treated so harshly, opposing fans convinced a rival deserved far worse or media displeased that the ruling in question isn't consistent with previous cases.

Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea captured the sentiment of UCLA fans in Nov. 2012 when he played the national anthem clad in a "Free Shabazz Muhammad" shirt the same day as the NCAA declared the freshman ineligible due to extra benefits. Former North Carolina forward John Henson protested the suspensions of ex-teammates Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston last year by donning a T-shirt featuring a circular blue logo with the word "SCAM" where "NCAA" would normally be. USC athletic director Pat Haden reiterated just last month he will go to his grave believing it's unfair that the Reggie Bush Case resulted in a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships.

"It's funny how no matter what the case is, the reaction is never that the enforcement staff got it right," said John Infante, a former university compliance officer and proprietor of The Bylaw Blog. "The perception is that every penalty is either way too severe or way too lenient. I can't think of a case recently where everyone looked at it and agreed, 'Yeah, that's pretty fair.'"

Some of the most blistering criticism enforcement staffers have endured followed a string of high-profile cases during Mark Emmert's first 18 months as NCAA president. When either Emmert or Roe Lach polled coaches and administrators about what the enforcement staff could be doing better in 2010, they cited cases involving Auburn, Miami, Ohio State or North Carolina and told her wrongdoers lack an incentive to stop breaking the rules because not enough are caught and those that are don't get punished severely enough.

Roe Lach and newly hired NCAA president Mark Emmert took that criticism to heart and attempted to address it.

Emmert beefed up the size of the enforcement department from 40 staffers to close to 60 and championed a new enforcement structure that holds coaches more accountable for infractions that happen under their watch. Roe Lach encouraged her staff to be more innovative in how they try to generate leads and restructured the department to capitalize on the increased manpower.

She launched football and men's basketball task forces in hopes of generating more cases rather than typically relying on the media. She created a new position with the title of director of quality control. And she hired investigators to stay in the office and generate leads by scouring social media, phone records, bank records and other evidence accessible via computer.

Many of the new hires came from a legal background. The ideal candidates Roe Lach sought possessed a combination of investigative and analytical skills, displayed both tenacity and high integrity and showed enough communications ability to develop sources in the field and to be persuasive in front of the NCAA's committee on infractions.

"It was always amazing to me the strength of the candidate pools and the breadth and the depth and the diversity," Roe Lach said. "There are a lot of people who are interested in college sports and generally the people with the skill sets I wanted saw an enforcement position as a way to be part of something they cared about."

The larger staff and revamped structure were necessities for an overburdened department trying desperately to keep pace with this era's increasingly sophisticated approaches to cheating. Whereas paper bags of cash were once the method of choice for unscrupulous runners seeking to steer a player to an agent or for deceitful coaches looking to bribe a coveted recruit, one of the favored options these days is a pre-paid ATM card that allows the buyer to keep adding to the balance as often as desired.

Investigators enjoyed more success during Roe Lach's tenure generating their own leads rather than reacting to media reports, but much of the progress made was undone by a pair of high-profile missteps.

The NCAA had to reinstate Muhammad just three games into the 2013-14 season because of the perception of impropriety created when the boyfriend of the lead investigator was overheard blabbing on an airplane about his girlfriend's confidence that the UCLA freshman would never see the court. Only two months later, investigators had to throw out a large portion of their evidence in a high-profile infractions case against Miami because they obtained it unethically.

Lacking the subpoena power necessary to obtain information through a bankruptcy proceeding, an NCAA investigator had the lawyer for former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro ask a list of questions during deposition on her behalf. Shapiro's lawyer in return received compensation from the NCAA, a mistake that led Emmert to launch an external review of the enforcement division and to eventually fire Roe Lach less than two years after promoting her to the head of the enforcement department and anointing her as a rising star.

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Miami booster Nevin Shapiro (middle).

Miami booster Nevin Shapiro (middle).

The fallout from the Miami debacle has been damaging for the enforcement staff and the NCAA as a whole.

No rules or state or federal laws were broken, yet the crisis in confidence in the NCAA's methods and principle deepened anyway, leading to broad challenges to the NCAA's authority and widespread calls for reform. The bungled investigations also fueled conspiracy theorists who have long claimed the NCAA favors certain institutions and is out to get others, a misconception that bothers enforcement staffers more than any other.

"Our job as investigators is simply to investigate facts," NCAA investigator Michael Sheridan said. "We have procedures we follow internally to review those facts and see if they meet the standard to bring forth an allegation. We do that without regard to whatever school that is and whatever individual that is. That's something most people get wrong when they view the staff. They see us as targeting some schools and giving free passes to others and that's simply not the case."

Between the challenges inherent to the job, the constant criticism from media and fans and the punch to the gut that was the Miami case, perhaps it should be no surprise that the enforcement staff has experienced unprecedented attrition during the past 18 months. Since the firing of Roe Lach and the lead investigators on the UCLA and Miami cases, high-ranking enforcement staffers Rachel Newman-Baker, LuAnn Humphrey, Angie Cretors, Chance Miller and Marcus Wilson have all followed them out the door.

The departures have led many to suggest that the time is ripe for cheating because the enforcement staff is reeling from the loss of some of its most talented and experienced investigators. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby was the harshest of all, telling reporters at Big 12 media day earlier this month that "enforcement is broken" and the perception right now is that "cheating pays."

Jonathan Duncan, Roe Lach's replacement as vice president of enforcement, bristles at that notion. He notes that the enforcement staffers who have left have mostly accepted compliance jobs in which they can use the knowledge they gained at the NCAA to serve individual member institutions. He also insists that the replacements the NCAA has hired have the talent, work ethic and sourcing to fill the shoes of those who are gone.

"I do think too much has been made of the people we've lost," Duncan said. "This is going to sound like I'm trying to make lemonade, but I'm not. We've been really successful in recruiting and hiring really impressive talent over the last year or so. I've had thousands of applications from people who are well-qualified and we have strong candidate pools. We've been able to hire people with backgrounds in coaching, administration, lawyers, investigators, compliance. So we've emphasized good hiring and we've also redoubled our efforts to train new hires and veteran staffs to make sure we're in the best position possible."

Among the high-ranking staffers who have stayed on board thus far is Crawford, an Alabama native and lifelong college sports fan with a passion for both athletics and law.

For Crawford, working in enforcement is extremely rewarding. He believes in the department's mission, he enjoys working with intelligent, dedicated colleagues and he appreciates that the NCAA appears committed to providing investigators with the resources they need to overcome the many challenges inherent to the job.

"I'm a college sports fan," Crawford said. "I grew up in a college town. I spent the first 25 years of my life in college towns. So I'm a big supporter. I wasn't a student-athlete, but I followed the game very closely and I believe in college athletics and what it does for student-athletes."

When Crawford says that, it's clearly not lip service either. A man with a diverse enough set of skills to work at the FBI, NFL and Alabama Attorney General's office doesn't have to stay at the most difficult job he has ever held unless he finds the challenge gratifying.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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