During the winter of 2010, Julie Roe Lach and her colleagues in the enforcement division of the National Collegiate Athletic Association made a list of all the things they felt the news media and the public failed to understand about their work.
One by one, the "myths" filled a whiteboard: The NCAA was too selective in its investigations, going after some colleges but not others. The process was unfair. There was too much confusion between the enforcement staff (who investigate potential rules violations) and the association's infractions committee (a separate group that doles out penalties).
On Tuesday, more than a year after that brainstorming session, Ms. Roe Lach, now the NCAA's vice president for enforcement, issued a friendly reprimand to a roomful of reporters gathered here at the association's headquarters to participate in a mock NCAA investigation designed to debunk those very myths.
"Believe it or not," she said with a smile, "some of the people in this room perpetuated these myths." (To illustrate that point, a giant screen behind her flashed several sharply worded quotes from news articles criticizing the NCAA. The deadpan heading? "Interesting Quotes About Enforcement.")
And so began the NCAA's inaugural "Enforcement Experience," a seven-hour simulation of an investigation into, and infractions hearing on, one fictitious college's violation of NCAA rules.
Two dozen reporters joined in. Though we hailed from places like ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and the Associated Press, on this particular day, we were assigned the personas of NCAA enforcement staff. In my case, that meant being a 12-year NCAA veteran who had also worked in compliance at the University of Illinois and had, as a college student, played basketball at Valparaiso University.
For Pat Forde, a columnist for ESPN.com, his new role as an NCAA staffer with a law degree and two national-championship tennis rings came down to this: "We've all been assigned the identities of actual NCAA Enforcement reps," he tweeted at the outset of the event. "I am a woman. And a stud."
Building a Case
The fictitious case before us dealt with academic fraud. At State University, we discovered during the investigation, several football players appeared to have cheated on tests in a sociology class through answer keys provided to them by Joe Tutor, a graduate student and tutor for the football team.
The tutor had been hired by the football coach. He was paid out of the football program's budget, in violation of an athletic-department policy requiring all tutors to come through the university's academic-support center.
Over the course of four hours, we investigators wrestled with many concerns. We weighed whether personal biases or grudges were likely to warp our sources' stories, especially given that a jilted ex-girlfriend and a bitter former player were involved.
We debated whom we needed to interview, and in what order, to avoid—as we heard many, many times from NCAA staff—"compromising the integrity of the investigation." (In other words, spilling the beans.)
And, ultimately, we had to decide whether we had gathered enough evidence to bring a charge of academic fraud against Joe Tutor. (We did, and later learned that additional charges had been brought against the coach.)
It's a bit of a stretch, of course, to take seriously a disciplinary proceeding where the cast of characters includes Joe Tutor, Kelly Compliance, and Frank Faculty. But the exercise was realistic enough and provided a rare window into how NCAA staff members—who coached us through the steps and fielded questions throughout—think when building a case against an athletic program, a coach, a group of athletes, or, in many cases, all three.
A Day in 'Court'
Fast-forward to the hearing before the Committee on Infractions. There, with the formidable interrogator Josephine R. Potuto acting as chair—a familiar role for the University of Nebraska law professor, who did indeed lead the committee at one time—we got a taste of the sometimes-testy exchanges that occur between the committee and representatives of an institution under fire for rules violations.
In this case, it was Coach Smith—the football coach who allegedly conspired to help four of his players cheat in the classroom—who was in the hot seat.
"I'm very unhappy about being here today, and quite frankly, I think the NCAA has made a mistake by making these allegations against me," said the indignant coach, played with gusto by a bespectacled NCAA staff member who looked more like an economist than a football coach. "I find it insulting that my integrity and my character have been called into question."
In a real case, a Committee on Infractions hearing—consisting of opening statements, the presentation of allegations, responses to those allegations, questions from committee members, and closing statements—can take between seven hours and two days. For us, it took less than two hours, and that included our hasty deliberations on what penalties to levy on Coach Smith, Joe Tutor, and State University.
After the mock hearing, the NCAA's president, Mark Emmert, told reporters he was interested in looking for ways that the association's enforcement staff of 50 can manage its cases "a little more expeditiously." Under the current system, a violation is categorized as either "major" or "secondary," a framework that Mr. Emmert said was "a little too crude a categorization." Instead, he floated the idea of creating several more levels of rules violations to reflect the varying degrees of their severity.
And he said he was open to discussing a strengthening of penalties, though any changes in that area would have to go through the NCAA's legislative channels first.
"We need to make sure that our penalty structure and our enforcement process impose a thoughtful level of concern, and even fear, that the cost of violating rules exceeds the benefit," Mr. Emmert said. "When we have people doing a cost-benefit analysis—'Even if I get caught, the penalty won't be too great'—that is not where you want to be."