Whether it’s searching a prospect’s name on Twitter and accidentally posting it, hitting reply all to an email instead of forwarding it, or misusing the direct message feature, UNC’s Associate Athletic Director for Compliance has seen plenty of comedic fodder cross her desk.
“When you read them on paper, they look silly to outside people who don’t deal with it every day,” vanGelder said. “But when you’re seeing them constantly, you just get used to reporting those.”
“Silly or not, it’s still a violation.”
In a public record obtained by the Daily Tar Heel, UNC self-reported 91 violations spanning from Jan. 1, 2012 to Aug. 13, 2014 — the date the record was requested — ranging from impermissible texting and cash benefits to improper data entry of transfer credit hours.
“Having a healthy level of paranoia is generally how I put it for somebody in my position,” vanGelder said. “You have to question everything you see.”
The NCAA – which was unavailable for comment – has long been scrutinized for the complexity and absurdity of its legislation, with the media latching onto noteworthy cases.
In 2014, Ohio State University self-reported an accidental text message sent to a recruit by a coach’s 4-year-old son. In 2013, the University of Oregon self-reported an impermissible gift when an assistant coach replaced a forgotten shaving kit for a prospect’s father.
And while the NCAA later contacted both schools to inform them no violation was actually committed, the self-reporting process was already complete — and the stories only confirmed the public disfavor of the NCAA rules.
“The rulebook still continues to be just mind-numbing to look at,” said UNC baseball coach Mike Fox. “You would have to write a whole novel about it. It’s an unbelievable challenge.”
Coaches aren’t alone in their frustration, as compliance officers also bemoan the extensive regulations they must operate within.
“There are certain rules in there that I completely agree with, and there are other rules in there that I don’t agree with as wholeheartedly,” said Jody Sykes, senior associate athletic director and chief compliance officer at Oregon. “We live with them, whether we like them or not.”
Social media infractions most irk vanGelder. Of UNC’s 91 self-reported violations, 16 have been the result of a social media mishap.
“Social media causes us so many problems,” vanGelder said. “If I looked at Twitter all day long, all I would do would be report Twitter violations.”
Social media plagues institutions across the country. In March, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller was ruled ineligible after posting a commercial endorsement on his Instagram.
But when the university self-reported the incident, Miller was reinstated with no consequence.
“Braxton posted the Instagram and within 20 minutes called one of our compliance officers,” said Doug Archie, associate athletics director for compliance at Ohio State. “We said, ‘Hey, probably not a great ten-second decision, let’s take that down.”
Despite the prevalence of these types of violations, vanGelder has been frustrated by the NCAA’s inability to adjust to changes in technology.
“They’re just getting around to addressing Facebook,” she said. They’re trying to word things with a broad brush, but that’s very difficult when your coaches want to know, ‘Well, how does that relate to Snapchat?’”
Because NCAA legislation doesn’t address technologies directly, the rules fail to accurately differentiate between various modes of communication.
“If you direct message a prospect on Twitter, that’s just like an email, but they still can’t text message,” vanGelder said. “Make it one thing, and don’t try to tell me that a text message is different than a direct message on Twitter because it’s not.
“Technology is a game-changer in recruiting.”
‘Completely out of control’
Fox remembers the days before roster limits and scholarship caps. In 2009, the NCAA capped baseball rosters at 35 players in response to college baseball coaches signing surplus recruits to safeguard against current players leaving to play professionally, only to cut these excess players in the fall.
Despite the noble intention of the rule, Fox disagrees with the prescribed solution, which limits the number of walk-ons he can carry on his roster.
“The NCAA says I can’t have a 36th player, and yet the NCAA promotes that it’s all about opportunity,” said Fox, a former walk-on. “I could talk for two or three hours about why all of this is just grossly unfair and wrong.”
Fox also takes issue with coaches at big-time programs using their resources to circumvent the rulebook.
“You used to be able to send a kid (recruiting letters) more than 8 ½ by 11,” Fox said. “Used to be two colors. Now, I don’t even know the rules. We just don’t send kids anything.”
Many coaches took it one step further, using campus funds to customize lockers and display recruiting pitches on the Jumbotron.
“That’s why it’s so convoluted; everybody was trying to think of a way to one-up the next guy,” Fox said. “Coaches thought of all those things, and it got away from really why you’re supposed to be recruiting a kid here.
“(College athletics) is completely out of control.”
But Archie sees the inequity of resources as an inevitability.
“Let’s not pretend we’re going to create this level playing field in terms of resources because we’re not,” said Archie, who previously worked at Utah and North Dakota. “We’re now recognizing that as a membership and adopting rules that make more sense.”
Yet less stringent regulations leave greater room for interpretation – and exploitation.
“(Coaches) are the best at finding ways to want to do something that may not be addressed by the rule directly,” said vanGelder with a laugh. “We don’t want rules, but we also don’t trust our neighbors to do the right thing.”
In a report provided by the ACC to its member schools, 65 percent of violations committed by conference members were related to recruiting.
And in vanGelder’s mind, the distrust in the coaching community ensures that regulations will continue.
“You want to allow your coaches to do as much as they can so that they’re not at a competitive disadvantage with the school down the street,” vanGelder said. “But at the same time you need to make sure you’re within the confines of the rules.
“We just need to have a little more common sense with what we pass.”
‘Tell mom and dad’
Sykes knows her obligation to protect her university against violations. Oregon is serving a three-year probation, stemming from major recruiting infractions.
And just as the Oregon coaching staff was heavily punished for failing to recognize their violations early enough, Sykes speculates that former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel might have kept his job in 2011 had he self-reported major infractions at his university.
While nearly all minor violations result in little consequence, Sykes takes every precaution to self-report every possible incident – even when it involves shaving cream and a razor.
“We’ve agreed to be a member institution of the NCAA; we pay our dues,” Skyes said. “We’re bound by those, whether we agree with them or not.”
Contrary to popular belief, the NCAA actually holds little power in the creation of its own rulebook. Member institutions are responsible for proposing and voting on all potential rule changes, leaving them accountable when legislation proves effective.
“It’s easier to blame the big bad NCAA to say it’s their fault when we really need to look in the mirror,” Archie said. “The NCAA interprets it and adopts it, but they didn’t make the rule.
“All the rules that we don’t like are actually coming from ourselves.”
Though the power lies in their hands, schools are often quick to challenge their own legislation, oscillating between a desire for more regulations and a demand for less.
Even when the rules are less than satisfactory, schools are quick to self-report even the most ridiculous situations.
“It’s like a little kid, ‘I’m going to go ahead and tell mom and dad because I don’t want my friend to tell them,’” Fox said. “‘It’ll be worse, so I’d rather them just hear it from me.’”
While the process at times seems laughable, Archie views self-reported violations as crucial to collegiate athletics.
“It’s much healthier when we’re finding our own mistakes in good faith and turning them in as we find them,” Archie said. “Our business couldn’t function without it.”