Q&A with Bylaw Blog's John Infante

With investigations of Tennessee, Auburn, Ohio State, and Oregon taking center stage, college football fans have been given many opportunities to comment on the NCAA and its enforcement procedures.  Here on Black Shoe Diaries, we've covered the Buckeye compliance issues at great length

Despite our best efforts, we know that we aren't experts in the field - at least not yet. To help us understand the complex business of compliance and enforcement, we reached out to a person who has extensive experience in the topic - John Infante.

John Infante is the assistant director of compliance at Colorado State University. While performing the same job at Towson University Loyola Marymount, John anonymously ran Bylaw Blog, an unofficial/opinionated guide to NCAA compliance issues.  John discontinued the blog after his identity was revealed, but the site was so highly regarded that the NCAA encouraged him to continue.  Now, the NCAA hosts it on its own website.

John was gracious enough to let me pick his brain on a variety of topics - the role of a compliance department, the effect of social media on college athletics, the rise of 7-on-7 club teams, and "cost of attendance" scholarship reform.  And for those of you who are (or have become) serious soccer fans, there's a special bonus question for you at the end.

Like conference expansion last season, compliance has been this off-season's hot topic, even though most people know very little about it.  As a compliance officer, can you elaborate a bit on what a school's compliance office actually does and how big the staff normally is?

The job of the compliance office is two-fold. First, it must maintain institutional control over and monitor the school's athletic departments. Second, like every other part of athletics administration, it must support the programs to reach their goals. So in addition to the monitoring, educating, and penalizing that gets compliance in the news, there's also an aspect of advocacy where the compliance office fights for favorable interpretations and waivers. At the BCS level, typically the staff is 3-4 people, although there are departments with 8-12. Below that, two or three is normal, with some smaller schools still having only one full-time compliance officer.

How far does a school's compliance responsibility go?  When does the NCAA step in and take a larger investigative role?

When an investigation goes beyond the standard look into a potential secondary violation, there's really three ways it can go. The first is that the institution largely does the investigative work in-house. This is relatively rare at this point, and oddly enough is seen only at the largest schools with the biggest offices. Running a major infractions investigation essentially doubles a compliance office's work. So most BCS schools choose the second option, which is to hire outside counsel. 

The third option is to simply throw open the doors and allow the NCAA to come in and control the investigation. This is normally not required though because of the principle of institutional control. Ultimately the institution is responsible, so it's up to the institution to do a thorough investigation if it chooses to. The NCAA's enforcement staff and the Committee on Infractions decide what a thorough investigation is though. Even if the school does the legwork, the enforcement staff will still make sure it gets what it needs from the institution.

In recent history, we've seen investigations against power programs like USC, Tennessee, Auburn, Ohio State, Georgia Tech, and even newcomers like Boise State.  Is the NCAA expanding their staff and the scope of their investigations?  Or is this a particularly turbulent time in college sports?

I think it's less about the expansion of the staff as it is a philosophy change. The method of focusing on areas like agents or basketball or football clearly works. It allows the NCAA staff members to build the relationships, the sources, and the leads that ultimately lead to exposing programs and people that aren't following the rules.

But there are a lot of factors outside of the NCAA's office in Indianapolis that are helping to increase the number of schools facing investigation. Members of the media, most notably Dan Wetzel and Charles Robinson have their own relationships and their own sources. Social media has made it harder to keep anything beyond the smallest violations quiet. It all adds up to more leads and tips for the enforcement staff to follow.

How great of an impact has the rise of social media had on the NCAA rulebook?  Are we regulating something that's nearly impossible to control? 

It's changed the traditional definitions of how coaches contact recruits. It's harder to differentiate between a phone call, a text message, and a letter. The other problem is that change comes much quicker. When Facebook changed their messaging system, it didn't need to spread slowly. Every teenager adopted it immediately.

So regulating how coaches get in touch with recruits is getting impossible. You can still regulate when coaches speak to recruits, especially when they start, and that's the direction the recruiting bylaws will have to go in the future.

Does the compliance model we've laid out actually work?  The NCAA is a fairly small operation, at least compared to the larger member schools like Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, and Florida.  If it doesn't have subpoena power, aren't we really just counting on schools to act in good faith?

One recent trend is the adoption of a more defensive stance by some member schools facing allegations. Until a few years ago, it was difficult for a school to put up a vigorous fight against major infractions allegations. The reason was that once you had to investigate a major infractions allegation, you could either stonewall or you could actually do the investigation. No school had the resources to do both.

Now with the growth of compliance staffs and the rise of outside counsel, it is possible for a school to comply with its obligation as an NCAA member to cooperate but still put up a strong defense against the charges. It has become the classic case of the private sector having more firepower than their regulators.

Simply expanding the NCAA's enforcement staff isn't necessarily the answer, because the enforcement model is based on institutional control. To really change the enforcement model, you would need to drop or deemphasize the idea of institutional control, and change the relationship between the members and the institutions. That would be long road, but it's one that at least deserves a look at this point.

When you talk about changing the relationship between member institutions and the NCAA, what do you mean?  If we mean making the process more adversarial, how much are we at risk of the power conference members throwing up their hands and withdrawing in order to start their own league? 

Just because the process wouldn't be based on institutional control doesn't mean there wouldn't be cooperation. A prosecutor and a defense attorney can still work together. All the NCAA members, especially those in the power conferences, want a more consistent enforcement process. If that requires it to be more adversarial, to define roles more clearly, that's what it will take.

How can we reform the system to make enforcement more effective?  Is expanding the enforcement staff the answer?  Or would it be better to consider rewriting the rulebook to focus exclusively on major violations?

Just expanding the enforcement staff is not the entire answer. That said, I don't think you'll find a single person in college athletics who says the NCAA has too many or even enough people on the enforcement staff. Expanding enforcement, both in numbers and in tactics, is one part of the puzzle. And the NCAA is doing so, with new positions being hired and more staff members out in the field.

The Division I Manual is certainly overdue for an overhaul. 99% of the college sports world can agree on some core concepts. There should be some academic requirement. There should be some limit on what the institution can pay players. There should be a way for recruits to not have their lives taken over by coaches. And there should be some limit on how much coaches are allowed to ask of athletes in terms of practice.

The trouble is that when you wipe out the existing rules and try to start from just those principles, getting almost 350 very different and fiercely independent schools to agree is very hard. So hard that it might not happen. So major changes in the rulebook are less about what those changes will be and more about which schools and sports will be in the highest level of college athletics when you're done.

You were recently a guest on a podcast with CBS Sports' Mike Norlander where the two of you discussed the loosely regulated AAU model.  We've previously spoken here on BSD about the rise of 7-on-7 club teams.  Do these teams and tournaments really pose the same kind of problems for football recruiting that they do for basketball recruiting, or are we making a mountain out of a molehill?

Long-term, I'm of the belief that 7-on-7 poses a greater threat for problems in its current state than AAU basketball. In the short term though there's one major limiting factor: it's not real football. AAU is not just real basketball, in some ways it is superior to high schools basketball since top players regularly play with and against other top players. Right now 7-on-7 is just another place where "third parties" might latch onto a recruit. But it's far from the only place that can happen.

What troubles me about 7-on-7 is that it represents the first step toward real club football. Having figured out how to get football players playing and visible during the offseason, the next step is to have them playing the real thing. The problem is the physical toll of football is too much to have both high school and club football. So while AAU basketball exists alongside high school basketball, I'm confident that club football will eventually replace high school football. And if that happens with no regulation or structure in place, it will be the Wild West.

With the 7-on-7 model still in its formative stages, is it possible for the NCAA (maybe in partnership with the NFL) to be the regulating body for club football?

That would be difficult. The NCAA isn't a youth sports organization, so it's not part of the NCAA's expertise to run a national youth or high school-aged football league. It's not in the NFL's wheelhouse either, unfortunately. And there's less chance of club football teams producing players that can jump to the NFL. The NFL and NCAA will need to be partners for a real national club football structure to exist, but their role is more to favor that structure in how they scout and select players rather than to actually run it.

You've spoken a bit about competitive equity, which is obviously a concern for programs in non-BCS leagues.  In a related topic, several conferences have begun discussing increasing scholarship amounts to cover "cost of attendance."  What kind of impact would this proposal have on teams in smaller leagues, or even smaller schools in the BCS conferences themselves?

The greatest impact is likely to be felt in Division I's "middle class," that is the schools you mentioned plus the FCS. The reason is that any proposal would be targeted at football, and a school that does not sponsor football doesn't have to come up with a quarter million dollars for one team. So non-football schools are well positioned to weather or even profit from these proposals.

It's hard to say what the impact will be without seeing a full proposal. There are five or six different ways to have cost-of-attendance scholarships, and the price tag varies wildly. That said, the impact on competitive equity is likely to be felt more in nonrevenue sports than in football or basketball. Schools will come up with the money for football, men's basketball, and any Title IX obligation that results. But whether they can find the money for baseball, soccer, and hockey is another story.

One look at Bylaw Blog's Twitter account and you know how passionate you are about soccer.  Jurgen Klinsmann - best possible hire for the Men's National Team?

Absolutely, especially at this time. Klinsmann was always something of a dream hire because he has a European pedigree but understands the current American system and the American player. He's a not a miracle worker or a sure thing, but as US Soccer transitions to a more European development system with the US Soccer Development Academy league and the MLS academies, you'd be hard pressed to find someone who understands both and has senior national team management experience.

Thanks to John for all of his insight.  He's full of information and a pleasure to speak with.  Make sure you visit the Bylaw Blog (http://www.ncaa.org/blog/bylaw-blog/) and follow him on Twitter (@BylawBlog).

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