Nothing simple about catching cheaters

INDIANAPOLIS -- Anyone who has ever picked up the NCAA rules manual (with or without a forklift) knows that it is the written testament to the complexity of college athletics.

After spending the day Tuesday at the NCAA's educational Enforcement Experience -- a mock investigation and infractions case conducted for about 25 media members -- that complexity was reinforced time and again.

They put on a very good show, delivering a ton of impressively presented information that even included a touch of that rarest of all NCAA commodities, humor. And they finished the day with an excellent Q & A with NCAA president Mark Emmert.

They want us to write nice things about the enforcement process, of course. And we will, because enforcement director Julie Roe Lach and her staff deserve it after lifting the curtain on the most controversial and misunderstood thing the NCAA does. The association is gradually emerging from decades of bunker mentality in which it was secretive about everything -- especially enforcement -- and this was another step forward in that regard.

But my bottom-line takeaway from the day was this: There is nothing simple about the arduous process of catching and punishing cheaters. And that remains the biggest problem the NCAA faces in trying to make the sporting world understand why it does what it does.

Complexity is out of vogue these days -- in American society in general, and in American sporting society in specific. Nuance is passé.

We are more cursory than thorough in many ways, ranging from how we digest news to how we arrive at our opinions as sports fans. We sprint to judgment of quarterbacks, coaches, recruiting classes and how rival schools are conducting their athletic business. The greater the gray area between black and white conclusions, the less likely we are to wallow through it in search of understanding.

Thus if a topic is complicated enough to defy easy explanation, we produce one anyway. We ascribe ulterior motives where there may be none, make apples-to-oranges comparisons and always assume that the power structure is out to get Us (whoever Us is) and scared of going after Them (whoever Them is).

For the people in Indianapolis who work in a world of endless complexities, this is a frustration. They see months (or years) of deliberate, procedure-intensive effort to resolve an investigation often reduced to a blanket assertion that the NCAA is protecting Them, when just last year it was harassing Us for something far less serious.

This is not to say the NCAA is above thoughtful criticism. There are real flaws within the institution -- and its membership. Namely, are the schools truly committed to serious enforcement?

One of the most revealing things from the experience Tuesday was that former Committee on Infractions chair Josephine Potuto -- a firecracker of a professor at Nebraska -- recommended to the NCAA's board of directors in 2008 that it "ramp up" penalties for cheaters.

Three years later, there's still been no response to that.

I believe some of the NCAA's recent actions have backed up that recommendation -- ask football giant USC. And I believe Bruce Pearl and Ohio State are headed for a serious smackdown this summer. But it would be nice to see the board of directors make a clear statement about its tolerance level for cheaters.

(In particular, the arm of the NCAA that needs to show some backbone in this area is Student-Athlete Reinstatement. That's the group that sent Cam Newton back onto the field without penalty and, even more egregious, agreed to let Ohio State's tatted-up bunch of memorabilia sellers play in the Sugar Bowl. Unfortunately, SAR was not part of our experience Tuesday, because a lot of us have questions about how that group works.)

Emmert, for one, says he's in favor of a ramping up.

"We need to make sure our penalty structure and enforcement process imposes a thoughtful level of concern and even fear that the cost of violating the rules exceeds the benefit," he said.

Deterrence is a good thing. But being able to catch the cheaters remains difficult with all the hurdles the enforcement staff has in front of it.

We all know that the NCAA lacks subpoena power -- it cannot compel those outside its membership to cooperate with an investigation. Tuesday we learned that the NCAA also cannot use off-the-record information as the sole basis for an allegation of violations.

In our exercise, an investigation started when an NCAA rep received a phone call from a player's ex-girlfriend alleging systemic cheating on a test. She did not want to put her name behind the allegation. Even if the NCAA tracked down two more ex-girlfriends (or whoever) saying the same thing in confidential fashion, that's still not good enough for a formal allegation.

And the NCAA is inhibited by its own procedural formality -- it is required to give schools notice before investigators conduct on-campus interviews of coaches, players or staffers. In the course of trying to be fair with its member schools, they often give the perps time to circle the wagons. So much for the element of surprise.

After the investigation process, the NCAA has to decide whether it has enough to make an allegation. This can be a tough sell -- our group of five reporters voted no, after a lot of internal disagreement. Enforcement reps said similar, real-life debate is common within the building.

If a Notice of Allegations is delivered to a school, the next step is the hearing before the Committee on Infractions. (That's where Tennessee and Boise State are headed June 10, and Ohio State on Aug. 12.) In the mock hearing, Potuto and colleague Andrea Myers gave good insight into the kind of grilling both a school and the NCAA enforcement reps can expect if their answers aren't good enough.

The final stage is the COI deliberation on what penalties, if any, should be assessed. After finding State U and/or its football coach and a tutor had committed academic fraud, unethical conduct and lacked institutional control, we dropped the hammer: three years' probation, loss of five scholarships a year for two years, two years of vacated wins, a two-year postseason ban and a three-year show-cause order for the fired coach. (We would have given the tutor a show-cause penalty as well but, frankly, we forgot. I'm not sure we were the most thorough committee members.)

That was the end of our exercise. We were spared having to hold a teleconference to explain the decision to the media and spared listening to angry fans reducing a complex process to a gut-level explanation: the NCAA is out to get Us.

It's just not that simple. Nothing about NCAA enforcement ever is.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.