Interps All the Way Down
The silly, paranoid, stupid (and necessary) rules questions college athletic departments ask the NCAA.
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By Daniel Libit and Luke Cyphers
Is a luau a meal with entertainment? Or entertainment where food is served?
This was the conundrum facing the University of Hawaii’s athletic department. A judgment was needed. And not by any of the qualified cultural anthropologists on its Honolulu-based campus, but by someone in Indianapolis.
After all, this question was neither philosophical, nor academic, nor gastronomical. It was about recruiting. Hawaii wanted to bring some football prospects to a luau during their official visits. But, according to Bylaw 18.104.22.168 (a) of the NCAA Division I Manual, member institutions are allowed to spend upwards of $75 per day “to cover all actual costs of entertaining” recruits and their family members. That spending limit, however, excludes “the cost of meals and admission to campus athletics events.”
Thus, the conundrum: what is a luau? Dinner or a show?
At first, Hawaii went to its compliance contacts at the Mountain West Conference, which agreed that the meal portion of the luau could be excluded from the $75 per diem, if it could be priced out of the entertainment. Still, the school sought something more definitive.
And so, early last year, Hawaii’s compliance office transmitted a formal Interpretation Request to the NCAA through its Requests/Self-Reports Online (RSRO) database, the same Internet portal where college athletic departments are made to concede any number of low-level rules violations.
The Interpretation Request, however, is typically a proactive measure a school takes to avoid running afoul of those rules.
“Interp is needed because a luau consists of guests eating Hawaiian food, but also featuring [sic] entertainment such as Hawaiian/Tongan/Samoan music as well as cultural dance,” Hawaii wrote to the NCAA.
“Because this is an excellent opportunity for (prospective student-athletes) to learn about the unique culture of Hawaii, institution would like to have PSAs and family members attend a luau and not use entertainment monies.”
The NCAA assigned Hawaii’s query Case No.1044446.
Some 60 individuals in the NCAA’s academic and membership affairs department handle Interpretation Requests across all three college divisions. That’s in addition to their duties of processing waivers and providing other kinds of “governance support.” In the simplest cases, where the letter of the rule or a previous official interpretation speaks directly to a school’s inquiry, the staff can render a binding confirmation. If the school fails to follow the directive of the binding confirmation, it’s considered a rules violation.
In some cases, an individual NCAA staffer will handle the Interp Request alone. For Hawaii’s layered luau controversy, though, the matter was taken up at a “bylaw team meeting.”
Last Jan. 22, the NCAA rendered its judgment:
As the event is both a meal and entertainment, the analysis should focus on what is the purpose of the event. For example, is the event primarily for entertainment but food is served? Or is the event primarily for a meal and entertainment will simply occur while the meal is consumed?
(A Hawaii athletics official says the school now asks its luau company how much the meal portion costs and allocates it as a recruiting entertainment expense.)
If any of this reads like pure insanity — or at least farce gleaned from a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” script — be warned: we’ve got a lot more where that comes from.
As crazy-making as the NCAA rulebook actually is, its specter creates a paranoia multiplier effect that perpetually agitates a cottage industry of professional worrywarts, who are made to wrack their brains over some of humanity’s most inane and extraneous questions. But fail to do that and run the risk of losing your job.
For a window into the mania of college sports compliance, there’s perhaps no better place to look than in the RSRO database. So, that’s what we did.
Beginning last summer, we made public records requests of scores of Division I public universities for NCAA interpretation requests transmitted over the first half of 2019. Today, we are publishing documents we obtained from 91 different D-I athletic programs. In most cases, their schools provided us the RSRO case summaries of Interp Requests, with or without the NCAA’s verdict. Texas also provided the informal emails sent between its athletics compliance staff and the NCAA over a series of different rules questions.
The Southeastern Conference handles the NCAA interpretation requests for its affiliates, so we instead obtained the email communications between the SEC compliance office and three member schools — LSU, Kentucky, and Mississippi.
Needless to say, there’s plenty to make you hike an eyebrow.
Five years ago, the NCAA promulgated a new interpretations philosophy meant to benefit athletes and streamline the process by giving schools greater discretion and flexibility over how they apply the rules. As these documents attest, those directives have done little to curb the systemic neurosis. There remain still too many rules with too much ambiguity and professional stakes too high over concerns too small.
“I don’t know how much flexibility the new process actually gave,” says Jo Potuto, a University of Nebraska law professor who previously chaired the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions. “Compliance people are operating in a world where they want black and white answers. They don’t want to be on the hook for discretionary decisions.”
And so, in addition to the fundamentals of a luau, here’s some of the other kinds of concerns that bedeviled college athletic departments last year:
Ball State wanted to know if its football players had broken NCAA’s “promotional activities legislation” by being televised on the NFL Network announcing the Indianapolis Colts 197th overall draft pick.
Bowling Green wondered whether a life coach contracted by its men’s basketball team could take a basketball player and his girlfriend out to dinner at a local restaurant “as part of one of the relationship counseling sessions.”
Missouri Kansas-City wanted to know if it could keep two moveable barber chairs in the teams’ locker rooms, which the school had purchased as part of an effort to elicit sponsorship deal with a local hair stylist to provide haircuts to athletic department staff athletes.
Nicholls State reported that several of its athletes had appeared on a student-hosted YouTube show called, “Bayou Boyz Live,” where they were given the chance to win $10 gift cards to Subway, Outback and Hooters by competing in trivia contests. “We believe this to be similar in nature to Notre Dame University Arika Ogunbowale being able to win prize money on the Dancing With the Stars because dancing was not related to her skills as a basketball player,” the school wrote in its Interpretation Request to the NCAA. (Apparently, the association overlooked Ogunbowale’s heroic performances in the NCAA tournament, aka “The Big Dance,” which is a trademarked phrase.)
Some of the Interpretation Requests read like half-hearted attempts by compliance people to satisfy terrible ideas from within their departments. One notable example comes from Utah State, which asked the NCAA if it could do promotions with local businesses that had cheeky tie-ins to two of their current basketball players’ names. (NIL, anyone?) For example, the school offered, a local grocery store could sponsor a so-called “Bean Night," where the first 1,000 fans attending a men’s basketball game would get a can of beans — presumably in homage to sophomore forward Justin Bean. The rationale? “We think these promotions could sell a lot of tickets just because the fans love these two guys,” the school wrote. The NCAA adamantly denied the request.
The most overwrought request we discovered came from the University of Connecticut, although its meticulousness may be understandable given how the school was involved in an unrelated NCAA investigation.
Last January, UConn sent the NCAA a nine-page memo, written and footnoted like a legal brief, seeking “interpretive assistance” on an incident in which then-Boston Celtics star Kyrie Irving had been present at the home of women’s basketball coach/podcaster Geno Auriemma, at the same time two Huskies recruits were hanging out.
This kind of pre-arranged contact, between a professional athlete and a recruit, is generally considered an NCAA no-no. But UConn attempted to argue that the contact was entirely unavoidable, in part by trying to throw Irving under the bus.
As the memo explained, in hilarious detail, Auriemma had met Irving around 2010 during the coach’s involvement with the USA Basketball men’s team. When Irving was traded to Boston in August 2017, the two would occasionally see each other during the Celtics’ off-season workouts.
“In addition to a passion for basketball,” the memo read, “Auriemma and Irving learned of a shared passion for wine.”
A subsequent footnote expanded on the coach’s oenophilia: “In addition to a publically [sic] available line of Italian wines produced under his own label, Auriemma maintains a highly regarded private wine collection in his home cellar.”
(Let no opportunity for promotion go unclaimed.)
On Sep. 22, 2018, Irving came to Storrs, Conn., at Auriemma’s invitation.
According to the memo:
Irving visited UConn’s campus that Saturday afternoon. Despite Auriemma’s instruction to arrive at his home later that evening, Irving and a friend arrived some time before 7 p.m. while the recruiting event was still going on. Auriemma never considered sending Irving away or excluding him when he arrived because he did not consider him a representative of the institution’s athletics interest and, regardless, Irving was not present to interact with the prospects or otherwise provide any recruiting benefit. In Auriemma’s words, “I know who can’t be there, and I did not think that Kyrie fell into that category.”
The NCAA was not persuaded. In a Jan. 29 response to the Interpretation Request, it declared:
Based on the facts presented, an impermissible contact occurred when a professional athlete, who was not a permissible recruiter of the institution, had off campus contact with (prospective student-athletes) and their families at the house of the head women’s basketball coach. The professional athlete was invited to the home of the institution's head women's basketball coach where a recruiting activity was occurring. The facts provided do not support the contention that contact was incidental or unavoidable as his presence at the coach's house was by invitation and the professional athlete remained in the locale of the activity. The institution should work with its conference office to report the violation.
Last week, the Hartford Courant reported that the “impermissible” Irving contact was one of 28 secondary violations UConn self-reported over the last two years.
It’s a good thing that college sports doesn't have bigger ethical concerns to worry about.
Keep in mind: all of this supposedly represents a sanity check over the way rules compliance used to be.
In 2014, the NCAA announced the adoption of new “student-athlete well-being” rules, including the allowance of unlimited meals and snacks. This came in the wake of former UConn men’s basketball star Shabazz Napier’s stunning on-camera claim that he sometimes had to go to bed “starving” while leading the Huskies to that year’s National Championship.
In addition to those rules changes, the NCAA sent a memo hailing its new “interpretive initiative,” encouraging schools to apply more of their own common-sense judgment. In a color-coded graphic, the NCAA identified certain categories of rules that had “more flexibility” in the ways in which they would be applied.
“From my perspective it made some difference, but not much,” Potuto tells Newsletter of Intent. "Maybe the major reason for it is this is a competitive environment and every school is watching to see what other schools are up to. And the leeway a school has to try and decide to be more flexible comes up at really lower level violations. Schools are still wary of doing that, because if you make a mistake, and you compete a student athlete, you face at least a potential of bigger consequences down the line.”
One of the categories of rules where the interpretive flexibility has officially remained “limited” is in recruiting, which accounts for many of the Interp Requests we obtained.
Clemson wrestled with whether a South Carolina recruiting news outlet, High School Sports Report, which asked a Tigers coach to speak at an event it was holding, was also a “scouting service” under NCAA rules.
Clemson thought not: “Institution is of the opinion that this is a news outlet that provides some information on prospects incidental to its primary mission of highlighting the high school sports programs around the state of South Carolina.” But the NCAA staff saw potential trouble: “Having coaches or sport specific staff attending the event makes this a bit of a slippery slope because of the ability to possibly recruit at the event. If this does happen, there may be a violation...”
LSU, Clemson’s fellow national football championship finalist, asked about do’s and don’ts when dealing with high school coaches who drop by campus by the summer to attend team practices. In its request, LSU made clear the prep coaches would be unaccompanied by any potential recruits, would not discuss recruiting with LSU staff, and would not be treated to any food, drink or transportation costs to come to campus, in accordance with Bylaw 13.8.
Just to make sure, LSU compliance officer Matt Jakoubek emailed his SEC counterpart: “If we drove them across the street in an institutional vehicle to see Tiger Stadium, would that be impermissible?”
The SEC’s response: “Yeah ... The provision of transportation generally is included in that prohibition technically....” Translation: We don’t care how hot it is in Baton Rouge in August, prep coaches. You’re walking.
Georgia State wanted to know whether it could give rides to women’s soccer recruits to a rescheduled game taking place 37.1 miles from its campus — “outside the 30 mile radius permitted to provide transportation to a prospect on an official visit” — after a rainstorm had flooded its home field.
Boise State asked if there was a limit on the number of in-flight bags the school could pay for a recruit to travel with to an official visit. It cited NCAA Bylaw 22.214.171.124, which allows an institution to provide “actual transportation costs.” The school wrote in an Interp Request that the wording of the bylaw made it“unclear whether or not there is any limitation on the number of bags an institution could pay for a PSA to bring on a flight to campus.”
Murray State asked about Bylaw 126.96.36.199 (a), which stipulates that a program can send postage to a recruit that is no bigger than 8 1/2 by 11 inches. A coach was interested in sending 16 individual letter-sized mailings that the recruit could put together to create a “personalized poster.” The NCAA said this was permissible. “However, the nuance to this is that it would not be permissible for the institution to have all pieces of correspondence already put together.” Clearly.
Ole Miss asked the SEC whether a coach could bring a personalized puzzle to a recruit during an in-home visit and, failing that, “permissible to take other forms of entertainment to an in-home visit (e.g. board games) if they are not personalized for the prospect.”
Kentucky emailed its SEC compliance contact about how it could use one of its green screens to take photos of recruits, without violating NCAA Bylaw 188.8.131.52. “We have been consistent that a green screen or media backdrop have to be permanent fixtures in that location,” Kentucky Associate AD Kevin Sergent wrote to SEC Assistant Commissioner Matt Boyer. The email continued:
We have extended that to not being able to have a screen in a closet, and then bring it out only for recruiting visits. In looking for ways to make a screen a permanent fixture, two situations came up that are similar and I want to confirm with you.
1. Have a green screen that rolls up but is always in the same location. For example, we have a blank wall in our team lounge that we could leave the screen at the base, and then during photoshoots (both team and recruiting), we’d raise it up and pin it on a hook;
2. Have a blank screen/green screen that rolls down from the ceiling and then can roll back up at will (see photo below).”
In other words, a green screen that is self-aware.
Yes, it’s all rather laughable unless, of course, it’s your job.
“Every compliance person is looking at a certain point for a route out,” says Brandon Wright, who did the work at Cincinnati and Maryland before leaving the biz entirely in 2016. He is now an assistant professor of sports administration at Ohio University.
“There are rewards,” Wright adds. “For example, if I filled out a waiver request for an athlete to stay on campus — if you work hard and massage relationships with the NCAA and get a positive result, the benefits are very intangible but they are there. But in terms of the day-to-day, those are few and far between. Maybe once a semester you get a positive response in terms of an interpretation or waiver approval.”
In a 2017 study published in the Journal of NCAA Compliance, Texas A&M assistant professors Clay Bolton and Anthony Rosselli surveyed 286 Division I compliance staffers to unpack, among other things, the pressures of the job. According to their findings, 35 percent of the respondents who experienced work-based anxiety couldn’t pinpoint the source.
“This is troubling in the fact that some professionals cannot seem to identify the causes of stress,” the study stated.
We have an inkling.
THE INTERCOLLEGIATE ON NPR
Last week, The Intercollegiate was profiled on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” in a flattering segment that looked at how (some) college sports reporters have turned up the skepticism dial of late.
“New Year's traditionally is one of the biggest days in college sports,” said ATC host Mary Louise Kelly, in introducing the story. “In recent years, though, college sports coverage has shifted away from a singular focus on entertainment. There's more hard-edged reporting on issues such as paying athletes or the disproportionate power and wealth of university athletic departments. NPR's Tom Goldman has this story about a journalist who has embraced the shift and become a college sports gadfly with plenty of targets.”
You can listen to the segment here.
In our piece about the film “College Coach” in the Dec. 17 issue of NOI, we quoted William Wellman Jr. saying that his father, the legendary Hollywood director, had once told him in regard to remakes: “Bill, if it was good once, it can be good again.” In fact, it was another filmmaking legend, Howard Hawks, who said that. We regret the error but still believe you should see the movie.
Daniel Libit and Luke Cyphers, coeditors of The Intercollegiate, write Newsletter of Intent. You can reach them with questions, comments, tips and luau invitations (meals included) at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured photo from @HawaiiFootball / Twitter
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