Ready, set, cheat.
That's the tacit message the NCAA currently is sending to its membership. The time is now to break the rules.
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.
On Wednesday, Yahoo! Sports exclusively published the first extensive public comments from former NCAA Vice President for Enforcement Julie Roe Lach, who was forced out of her position in February due to the missteps in Miami. Lach took the high road in her op-ed piece, firing no shots at NCAA president Mark Emmert or anyone else while championing the need for effective enforcement.
But how effective can the enforcement division be in its current dilapidated state?
It has lost its leader in Lach, who was hand-picked by Emmert to succeed David Price and continue leading the NCAA into a new era of enforcement. And since then it has lost three key enforcement reps: Marcus Wilson and Chance Miller, who formed a dynamic investigative duo in football, and Dave Didion. All three left for university compliance offices – Wilson to Maryland, Miller to South Carolina, Didion to Auburn.
But those are just the most recent departures from the enforcement staff. The rest of the list, over just the last 18 months:
Rich Johanningmeier , who was part of some of the NCAA's biggest investigations, retired.
Abby Grantstein was fired in fallout from the Shabazz Muhammad investigation.
Ameen Najjar was fired in fallout from the Miami investigation.
Bill Benjamin quit.
That's eight veterans lost in less than two years, most of them boots-on-the-ground investigators. And everyone expects more to come, as morale plummets and a siege mentality takes hold in Indianapolis.
No wonder 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.
How many qualified candidates are sprinting for those jobs? After the beating the NCAA has taken in recent months?
There already were concerns among enforcement staffers that the department was bringing in too many inexperienced investigators. Some of them knew nothing about cultivating sources, or tried-and-true investigative practices.
Now the talent pool appears to be thinning even more, unless the association significantly alters its pay scale and makes the dirty job of being an NCAA cop more attractive. Until then, the negative connotations attached to the job may be hard to overcome in terms of employee attraction and retention.
And quite frankly, the job is harder now than ever – whether the NCAA membership realizes it or not.
The NCAA scored some major coups a few years ago in using social media to uncover significant violations at North Carolina and elsewhere. Those were proactive investigations, launched without the news media laying the groundwork. But the cheaters are continually getting smarter.
Coaches are using "burners" – cheap secondary cell phones – to make phone calls that skirt the rules. They're buying pre-paid gift cards for small amounts for players and recruits. They're buffering themselves from agents and bag men through third parties. Money is changing hands through relatives and friends of athletes instead of the athlete himself.
It's harder than ever to catch a cheater. Especially with fewer investigators and less institutional knowledge. The fact that many newspapers have all but abandoned investigative sports reporting adds to the temptation to cheat without being caught.
Emmert's leadership style hasn't helped, either. He's been the most public president in NCAA history, and at times that has run counter to the buttoned-down, behind-the-scenes nature of enforcement.
Since the Miami issues arose, Emmert has spoken publicly many times – perhaps more often than has served him well – but he hasn't expelled a lot of breath rallying the enforcement troops. Lack of support from the NCAA president has helped breed disillusionment among the workers – and that actually started before Miami, when the Muhammad case rapidly disintegrated last fall over comments Grantstein's boyfriend reportedly was overheard making about the case on a plane flight.
The NCAA's quick capitulation to a three-game suspension of Muhammad was seen by some in enforcement as a sell-out of a solid investigation. And there are concerns that the Miami case will go the same way.
The NCAA is trying to salvage what it can of the case, but Miami seems intent on turning a loophole into a mile-wide escape route. It apparently has become less a matter of investigating what Miami has done wrong than what the NCAA has done wrong. The shift of blame and focus has been breathtaking.
While the NCAA defends itself from the bunker, not much investigating seems to be getting done. Open cases are wallowing in limbo. There is almost no street chatter about new cases underway.
The time has never been better to break the rules. Problems policing the cheaters have created a permissive atmosphere. The NCAA's enforcement crisis is real.
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• Incoming Miami QB in legal trouble over hit-and-run
• Is Memphis' recruiting class 'way better' than Kentucky's?