Call it the kinder, gentler NCAA. Hoping to quell criticism over high-profile problems in its enforcement division, the National Collegiate Athletic Association is pushing an unusual approach—treating athletics departments more like customers than adversaries.
The idea, championed by Jonathan Duncan, who was named head of enforcement this week after serving for a year as interim chief, is not entirely new. But some say Mr. Duncan, a former lawyer accustomed to working for his clients, has taken it to a different level.
In recent months, his staff has turned over tips and potential violations to some colleges accused of wrongdoing, asking them to handle the initial investigation rather than doing so itself. (In the past, the NCAA rarely gave out such information.)
Mr. Duncan has established a quality-control group to help assure colleges that his investigators are using sound tactics—a problem the association took heat for during its inquiry at the University of Miami.
The new enforcement chief has also invested in additional training for investigators, including sessions on appropriate interviewing techniques (another area colleges complained about) and better understanding of NCAA bylaws (he keeps a rules expert on hand one morning a week to offer guidance).
He cares so much about performance metrics that he calls presidents and athletic directors after cases are closed to find out how well his team has done. Soon he plans to distribute more-formal surveys to solicit feedback on how responsive, prepared, and knowledgeable his people are.
Mr. Duncan has been quick to shift resources to areas of increasing importance to colleges. He recently created an academic-integrity unit inside enforcement, tapping an investigator to head the group who has experience in academic advising.
His staff has made progress in evaluating the merits of cases before issuing allegations, say lawyers familiar with the NCAA’s processes. (If not, members of the Division I Committee on Infractions will let him know—he calls them, too.) And changes put in motion before Mr. Duncan arrived have allowed even fairly serious cases to be resolved without the expense, embarrassment, and trauma of a hearing.
‘Working for Our Clients’
No one likes to be investigated. But Mr. Duncan says that part of his job is to remind his staff who is in charge.
"We’re professional service providers working for our clients—the colleges and universities in the membership," he told The Chronicle. "The membership owns the bylaws, and the membership owns the outcomes through the Committee on Infractions. Our charge is that narrow part in the middle, between potential violations and presenting the case."
Mr. Duncan’s moves have helped restore some faith in the beleaguered division, which lost at least 16 people, including six senior officials, following a series of highly publicized problems.
The most prominent problems happened at Miami, where a former NCAA investigator reportedly went behind his bosses' backs to pay the lawyer of Nevin Shapiro to gather testimony from a bankruptcy hearing unrelated to the association's case. (Mr. Shapiro is the convicted Ponzi-scheme operator who allegedly made tens of thousands of dollars in impermissible payments to Hurricanes players.)
Since then, the enforcement staff has struggled to find its footing. Over the past year, many coaches and athletic directors have joked that, if they were ever going to cheat, now would be the time to do it, in part because the association was so short-staffed.
Mr. Duncan said his department was now nearly fully staffed, with about 60 employees. And he dismissed the notion that it was ever easy to cheat.
"That’s just not true—even down some staff, the work continued without missing a beat," he said.
Last year, he said, his group handled more than 4,000 secondary violations. And he said the association processed 20 major cases across all three divisions, with dozens more investigations never making it to the Committee on Infractions.
Credibility on Campuses
For years, critics complained about many NCAA investigators’ lack of campus experience. But some observers say the association has deepened its bench, hiring more people with recent campus experience, including former college coaches, top athletics administrators, and compliance officials.
"What they lacked so badly not long ago was credibility with people on campus," said Gene Marsh, a lawyer with Jackson Lewis and former chair of the Committee on Infractions. "They are getting some of that back."
Mr. Duncan has also established a "campus placement program" in which enforcement employees spend weeks at different universities to learn more about life in compliance, administration, and coaching, among other areas.
"We’re not going in to kick tires, rifle through files, or conduct investigations—but as a reminder of what it’s like to be on campus," Mr. Duncan said.
Whether or not they have had campus experience, many of those new hires face a steep learning curve, say people who have worked in enforcement.
"You can find anyone to come in and process a case," said one former investigator. "But it’s going to be difficult to put the pieces together because so many people have to start from scratch."
Despite Mr. Duncan’s best efforts, people continue to find fault with the enforcement system. A group of conference commissioners has singled out enforcement as one of the association’s leading problems. And many believe that, unless the NCAA can obtain subpoena power, it will continue to have trouble getting to the bottom of problems.
Mr. Duncan said he had looked into new ways of obtaining information in cases but would rather have his staff focus on using the tools at hand.
"We want to improve our ability to interview people with personal knowledge about violations," he said. "Our time is best spent doing that without coming up with more-effective tools."
He also intends to use other leverage to gain information. "We encourage cooperation by rewarding that cooperation," he said. "We discourage a lack of cooperation by penalizing that."
As for the idea that colleges might one day want to outsource the enforcement system, as some have suggested, Mr. Duncan didn’t seem fazed.
"It does come up occasionally, but does it concern me personally?" he said. "Only to the extent that it reflects on the level of service we provide."