The Executive Hills office tower at 7101 College Boulevard in
Overland Park, Kans., is known to locals as the Darth Vader
Building, because its convex facade of brooding black glass
evokes the Dark Knight of the Star Wars trilogy. But infinitely
more imposing is the black-glass-and-granite edifice half a
block away at 6201 College Boulevard: the headquarters of the
National Collegiate Athletic Association. If these walls could
talk, they would sound very much like James Earl Jones. Or maybe
Vincent Price. "How'd you get across the moat?" asks an NCAA
manager named Ed Thiebe, greeting a visitor to his office.
"Someone leave the drawbridge down?"
When the NCAA was searching for a new executive director in
1993, at least one finalist withdrew his candidacy at the
eleventh hour. "Because when he walked into the building,"
explains Cedric Dempsey, the man eventually selected for the
job, "he felt like he was walking into a very cold, impersonal
When the Association (as the NCAA is so often called by its
employees) hired Bill Hancock away from the Big Eight Conference
seven years ago to oversee the Division I men's basketball
tournament, he, too, was given pause at the drawbridge. On an
autumn midday as black as midnight, Hancock describes the first
time he tried to traverse the psychic moat surrounding the
national office. "I was scared to come in," he recalls. "You
expected to see these terminators inside."
Lightning suddenly veins the sky outside Hancock's window, and
one wonders if it was activated by a button behind his desk. For
the Association is imbued with godlike powers. It has dominion
over 300,000 men and women at 902 colleges and universities,
athletes for whom day really is night if the NCAA so decrees it.
But the NCAA decrees no such thing. Article 17, Section 1,
Subsection 5, Sub-subsection 3, Paragraph 1 of the NCAA's
breathtaking rule book is titled "Definition of Day," and it
reads like the first task on God's to-do list: "A 'day' shall be
defined as a calendar day (i.e., 12:01 a.m. to midnight).
Adopted 1/10/91." How the NCAA defined day before 1/10/91 is
perhaps better left unpondered.
At 579 pages, the 1996-97 NCAA Manual is a coffee-table-sized
book, which is not to say that it's the size of a coffee-table
book, but rather of the coffee table itself. It is thicker than
the typical Tom Clancy novel and only marginally more readable.
Article 3, Section 2, Subsection 5, Paragraph 6 of the NCAA
Constitution, to give you but a whiff of the writing style, is
headed "Reinstatement of Terminated Member," and deals with ...
what, exactly? The surgery performed on John Wayne Bobbitt?
No one can say for certain because no one has actually read the
rule book. Ask Dempsey if he hewed to the very letter of the law
as director of athletics at Arizona, and he replies dolefully,
"No, it was almost impossible to do that." He remembers a
Wildcats baseball coach once confessing that he blithely lent
his jacket to a freezing mother at a high school baseball game.
Under NCAA rules this constituted "illegal contact" with the
woman, and Dempsey's sardonic little laugh makes it clear: Leave
it to the NCAA to make a gallant act sound somehow...pornographic.
It is a laugh Dempsey has had to summon often in three years of
presiding over a bureaucracy considered by the public to be as
petty and oppressive, venal and vindictive as the IRS. The
federal government analogy is Dempsey's, and it is an apt one.
"The ol' boy out there who's drinking his coffee this morning at
the gas station is talking about those idiots in Congress," says
Hancock. "And he's also talking about those idiots in the NCAA."
"The public has a hard time understanding that all of these
rules have been made by the membership," says Dempsey, seated in
his magnificently appointed office. "We're only responsible for
implementing those rules." In fact, Dempsey's staff is also
responsible for interpreting those rules. Which is why a
friendly wager between opposing players for, say, a jersey is
punished as base gambling, while Michigan playing Minnesota,
with the Little Brown Jug at stake, is upheld as a grand
Dempsey is right when he says, "Those rules have been made
because of mistrust within the membership for each other."
(Over)simply stated, State U signs Chip Bluechip after sending
him a velvet portrait of himself; therefore State's jilted
rivals insist velvet portraiture be declared illegal. And so,
eventually, it is written into the rule book. "The lines keep
getting fuzzier and fuzzier," says NCAA enforcement chief David
Berst, which is why the manual spells out everything in black
and white, often literally: "Attachments to general
correspondence" with recruits, for instance, must be "printed on
plain white paper with black ink."
No wonder Dempsey speaks often of the desperate need to
"deregulate," as if the world of college athletics were a Ma
Bell monopoly--which, of course, it is. "We need to ask, 'What
is our mission? And what are the minimal standards we need to
meet that mission?'" Dempsey says. "It would be interesting to
put a two-to-three-year moratorium on some of our rules." The
NCAA will do just that with a pilot program next summer in which
coaches will be allowed some contact with recruits in four inner
cities, on the off chance that poor young males will actually
benefit from interaction with the adult men who will later coach
As national office staffers say again and again, they do not
want to enforce so many rules, they are sometimes embarrassed to
have to defend the rules publicly, and they cannot catch a
majority of the violators. Which leads to the public's second
association with the Association: that it's home to a stable of
nearsighted and impetuous investigators. Former staffer Chuck
Neinas has noted a striking resemblance between NCAA gumshoes
and the inspector in Les Miserables who spent 20 years pursuing
Jean Valjean for breaking parole after his imprisonment for
stealing a loaf of bread.
"When I'm on an airplane, and I happen to be sitting next to
someone who wants to chat about my job," says Tricia Bork, whose
duties include overseeing the women's basketball Final Four,
"I'll do anything to keep from telling him that I work for the
NCAA. Because more often than not, he'll start talking about the
enforcement staff and how we whacked his favorite team."
"Getting whacked" by "enforcement staff" from "the Association."
It is not surprising, given these gangsterly perceptions, that
an electronic security pass is required to gain access to the
national office's 5 1/2 floors. Alas, no such high-tech bouncer
regulates the phone lines. Steve Mallonee helps run a staff of
18 that fields 2,000 calls a week from parents and universities
seeking rule interpretations and from lawyers looking to sue
someone, anyone, at the NCAA. "It's human nature to scream at
the person giving you bad news," says Mallonee, who spends 80%
of his workday on the telephone. "You have to learn not to take
it too personally."
On a Selection Sunday night in 1993 when the women's basketball
tournament brackets were announced, Bork's office telephone rang
continuously, much the way her ears would the next morning: An
on-the-bubble team had been left out of the tournament, and
fans, congressmen and lawyers from that state were calling with
threats of injunctions, emergency federal legislation and death,
often in combination. Though Bork did not (and does not) select
the tournament field, her home telephone number was published in
a newspaper, and the death threats duly followed her home. "It
was this...siege of wrath," she says. "It's a little scary that
people take sports so seriously."
Just the other day a hoop-crazed rabbi phoned Hancock. The holy
man has tickets to this year's Final Four at the RCA Dome in
Indianapolis but cannot ride in a car on Saturday before
sundown. Would the NCAA find him a hotel room within walking
distance of the dome? Never mind that there are no unbooked
rooms within Patriot missile range of the dome that weekend or
that Hancock could not readily verify the man's vocation. (The
Association has no Talmudic scholars on staff, though the folks
in rules interpretation come very close.) Still, trying to make
just one friend for the Association, Hancock promised to try to
help the rabbi run.
Why fight it? Even the electronic building passes are mere speed
bumps to the most irrepressible petitioners to the NCAA. "I
heard that somebody once showed up downstairs claiming to be a
schizophrenic," says Hancock. "He had played four years of
college athletics, and he wanted four more years of eligibility.
You know, for his other personality."
Two personalities are two more than the NCAA will ever be
accused of having. Dempsey calls the office "a nice corporate
setting"--it looks like a prosperous suburban bank--"but not
That's because the NCAA is the unmistakable creature of Walter
Byers, who served as its executive director for 36 years, from
1951 to 1987, during which time the brilliant but eccentric
Kansan conceived and implemented a series of picayune rules for
his office staff. He insisted that every employee's thermal
drapes be drawn and desktop cleared at the end of each day, that
each day not end a nanosecond before 5 p.m. (at which time one
could begin clearing one's desk), and that employees work every
other Saturday. Employees not in by 8:30 a.m. were marked down
as tardy. Byers enforced a strict dress code and a beverage ban:
Drinks were forbidden at desks. There was no coffee break. The
drinks of courtside sportswriters at the Final Four had to be
decanted into official NCAA-logo cups. Byers's rule booklet,
titled NCAA Office Policies and Procedures and often revised,
eventually ran to more than 100 pages and was entirely
consistent with the Association's image as an anal-retentocracy.
And yet under Byers the NCAA grew from a single administrator
(himself) working out of the Big Ten office in Chicago's LaSalle
Hotel to its present 250 employees. The Association's annual
budget is $240 million, of which 78%--or $188 million--is
supplied by CBS in exchange for the right to broadcast the men's
Division I basketball tournament, which many fans believe to be
sport's greatest spectacle. Like so much else created by the
NCAA, March Madness has become a familiar patch in the national
The NCAA invented the hyphenate student-athlete to describe its
subjects, and that odd construction has also gained national
currency. "[The phrase] reflects the uneasy coexistence of
academics and athletics in our schools, a distinctly American
phenomenon," notes Tom McMillen, the former U.S. congressman and
Maryland and NBA center, in his book Out of Bounds. "We do not
hear equivalent terms such as student-artist or student-musician
because art and music do not rival athletics for control of our
institutions of learning."
Because the NCAA created the "athletics grant-in-aid," in 1956,
it also created the phrase "athletic scholarship," which Byers
concedes was once thought to be oxymoronic. "It still abuses the
English language," he writes in Unsportsmanlike Conduct:
Exploiting College Athletes, "but the contradiction now is
ingrained in the American idiom." As its subtitle suggests,
Byers's book decries the "plantation mentality" of Division I
college athletics, under which coaches and college
administrators sit on the veranda, sipping mint juleps, their
shoe-contracted feet propped up on the railing, while young
athletes pick cotton in the fields. Because Byers was present at
the creation of this world, his book was met with the reaction,
"Uh, now you tell us?"
That the book was met with any reaction at all is a wonder,
given its curious marketing: It sits on store shelves in
shrink-wrap, unbrowsable. Byers, a onetime United Press
sportswriter who seldom gave interviews or mingled among NCAA
members while in office, is 74 years old and has retired to his
Kansas City home and his Seven Cross ranch in Pottawatomie
County, Kans., where he remains largely out of sight,
shrink-wrapped and unbrowsable.
But his hardcover fusillade, which stands in silent rebuke on
the office shelves of top NCAA managers, speaks for itself:
"Dramatic changes" are required in the "oppressive" laws of the
"self-righteous" NCAA, particularly to spread the wealth to
student-athletes. "Collegiate amateurism is not a moral issue,"
Byers writes. "It is an economic camouflage for monopoly
Byers suggests that the NCAA abandon its role as what he calls
the "arbiter of the term, value and conditions of an athlete's
'scholarship' and as controller of the athlete's outside income
during his or her collegiate tenure. Whereas the NCAA defends
its policies in the name of amateurism and level playing fields,
they actually are a device to divert [that] money elsewhere."
Yes, and if Fidel Castro abandons his role as arbiter of Cuba's
destiny, there might soon be a Hooters in Havana. But El
Presidente is unlikely to surrender any of his power
voluntarily, and Byers says the same is true of the NCAA. He has
called for Congress to sign a college athletes' bill of rights
that would allow scholarship athletes to hold jobs during the
school year (which the NCAA finally permitted, with certain
limitations, in January), eliminate the rule requiring transfers
to sit out a year, allow athletes to consult agents about their
pro career prospects, and make schools give workmen's
compensation coverage to their athletes.
"The NCAA, with its mammoth rule book, controls individual
athletes in a manner I think is illegal," Byers told SI in a
brief telephone interview. "It denies athletes the freedom other
Dempsey began making changes in the national office before he
even crossed the moat. When he arrived on Jan. 2, 1994, the six
best spaces in the parking lot were reserved for members of the
upper-management team. Dempsey put an end to the perk, and
workers uprooted the concrete curbstones, as if toppling Lenin's
statues in post-Communist Russia. It says much about the old
office culture that for the next week nobody parked in the six
spaces nearest to the building's entrance.
The glasnost had begun under Dempsey's predecessor, Dick
Schultz, the extroverted, Gorbachevian executive director during
the six years after Byers's retirement. Alas, Schultz was forced
to resign in 1993 because of NCAA violations that had occurred
during his tenure as athletic director at Virginia, from 1981 to
'87. The irony that the head of the NCAA was deposed after an
NCAA investigation was lost on nobody.
Stroll through the halls of 6201 College Boulevard today and
you'll see incontinent Ocean Spray Mango! Mango! drinks wetting
desktops. "I have Dilbert cartoons on my wall," notes Janet
Justus, director of education resources. "You never would have
seen that before." Nor would you have seen Justus in Doc Marten
boots. Last fall Dempsey introduced a five-days-a-week informal
dress code. Freed to express themselves sartorially, staffers
have shown wildly eclectic preferences--from NCAA-logo golf
shirts to NCAA-logo golf sweaters. It's a start.
"I hate buzzwords," says Bork, an 18-year veteran of the
national office and a great admirer of Byers's. "But we now talk
about empowerment and giving people decision-making ability.
It's a warmer atmosphere."
As Dempsey settles behind the wheel of his courtesy
car--supplied by O'Neill Oldsmobile, the same Kansas City dealer
that gave Kansas center Wilt Chamberlain an Olds in 1956, in
violation of NCAA rules--the obvious question is put to him: Now
that the NCAA has loosened the rules for its employees, might it
not do the same for its athletes?
Redefining amateurism is the most highly charged topic at NCAA
headquarters and was the dominant subject of a two-day staff
retreat last fall. It is nothing more than a euphemism for
allowing college athletes to accept money.
When addressing the subject, Dempsey composes each sentence in
his head before speaking, mindful of his many constituents. One
can almost see the words materialize in a cartoon thought
balloon before he utters them. "I do not believe in most cases
that student-athletes are exploited," he says. "But I think the
inconsistency is hard to understand. That is, we pay coaches a
lot of money; a lot of money is generated, primarily through
football and basketball; and why shouldn't the student-athlete
receive the benefits?"
Dempsey, 64, was the nation's second-leading rebounder as a
junior at Albion College in Michigan in 1952-53. (This is less
impressive when he points out that his team averaged 90 points a
game while shooting 33%.) Poised above a foothill of angel-hair
pasta at Martini's restaurant in Leawood, Kans., he speaks
eloquently of all the benefits that accrue to a scholarship
student-athlete, not the least of which is an education worth as
much as $26,000 a year.
"Now, addressing the financial issue," says Dempsey, chewing
each word as if it were the sourdough bread in front of him.
Pause. "I personally feel that needs to be reevaluated. Our
grant-in-aid does not meet the cost of attendance. With the time
demands of Division I athletics, it is difficult for that needy
student-athlete to exist."
Existence: It is vital to a student-athlete's well-being. Or so
Dempsey is conceding on this balmy autumn day. It is, in itself,
an epochal acknowledgment, born of an NCAA study that concluded
that a full athletic scholarship (which covers tuition, books,
room and board) falls short of the actual cost of attending
college (with its odd night out, its occasional visit home, its
biennial trip to the laundromat) by $1,800 to $2,400 a year.
That works out to at least $200 a month from September to May,
and it doesn't take Earl Grey to read the tea leaves: This is
the sum by which the executive director of the NCAA feels some
student-athletes ought to be further, shall we say, compensated.
Dempsey avoids the word stipend and disdains the word paid. In
Overland Park paid is a four-letter vulgarism, like UNLV.
At its January convention in Nashville, the NCAA passed a rule
to allow student-athletes to work during the school year, though
only to make enough money to meet the actual cost of attendance,
only after their freshman year and only if they are in good
academic standing. Whenever stipends were broached, the subject
was shot down like skeet. Stipends are not likely to fly anytime
soon. But should they?
"Some people say we ought to pay student-athletes a thousand
dollars a month," says Dempsey. He suddenly sees that his
Freudian slip is showing. "I mean a hundred dollars a month! A
hundred. Other people say, 'No, that's pay-for-play.' But if you
put it in a context of 'Maybe they need two hundred dollars a
month to meet the cost of attendance,' is it pay-for-play?
That's why I don't like the term."
It might be truer to say the NCAA dislikes the term pay-for-play
because paying athletes would put colleges in a Pandora's
box-and-one of legal horrors. The member schools would become
employers of athletes and thus be required to pay payroll tax,
workmen's compensation and the like. "The federal tax code,"
writes Byers, "has indeed replaced amateurism as the rationale
for the current rule book." The tax code trumps any
philosophical argument about amateurism.
The IRS no doubt pines to engage the NCAA in court. Imagine the
authors of the federal tax code versus the authors of the NCAA
rule book in a bureaucratic sumo match for all eternity. It is a
fate that both parties may well deserve. However, schools would
likely befuddle the IRS with some semantic sleight of hand--for
instance, by "capping the grant-in-aid at the cost of
attendance," which is NC-double-A double-speak for paying
athletes the difference between their scholarship and the true
cost of attending college: say, $200 a month. So why not do just
"The main reason we haven't gone up to the cost of attendance is
a financial one," says Dempsey. "Most institutions can hardly
afford their programs now"--only 48 programs turn profits--"and
you can't get away with doing it only for football and
basketball players. You're talking about the whole population
[of college athletes]. You're talking about 300,000 kids."
You're talking about $540 million a year. You're talking about
more than twice the NCAA's annual income. And, soon, you're
talking about a lasting peace in the Middle East or the solution
to some other problem more easily fixed than this one.
Except that it can be done. Of course it can. A 16-team football
playoff could be as lucrative as the basketball tournament,
doubling the NCAA's annual income. Or, now that student-athletes
may work during the school year, the Association could limit the
monthly stipend to a chicken feed $100 and give it only to the
130,000 athletes in Division I. The NCAA could finance much of
that $117 million shebang from, say, increased apparel sales.
The NCAA licenses its logo and that of 22 universities to a
Japanese company called Descente to market apparel in that
nation. "That's a more-than-$20-million-a-year program," Dempsey
admits, "for doing virtually nothing.
"We are preparing to increase our activities in promotions and
licensing. Our potential there is still untapped. But that's a
balancing act. If we wanted to go totally to an NCAA Properties
concept, like the NBA or the NFL, what we could generate.... "
Dempsey shakes his head at these unseen millions. "But that
would start moving us across the line."
"Start?" you might ask. Each day, college athletics crosses more
lines than an interstate trucker, and Dempsey knows it. "I do, I
do," he says. In 1995 college football's national championship
was decided in the Tostitos Brand Tortilla Chip Fiesta Bowl, an
obscene snack-selling circus in which the corn chips were far
more prominently displayed than the Cornhuskers of Nebraska. "I
thought that was way over the line," Dempsey says. He insists,
perhaps too conveniently, that membership has asked the national
office to keep its nose out of college football's postseason
commercial arrangements. Nevertheless, the manual does proffer
the preposterous Rule 2.15: "The conditions under which
postseason competition occurs shall be controlled to...protect
student-athletes from exploitation by professional and
commercial enterprises." With the exception, one presumes, of
the Thrifty Car Rental Federal Express Poulan Weedeater
Tough-Actin' Tinactin Ty-D-bol bowls at the end of last season.
The prospect of further travel down this road gives some within
the NCAA the heebie-jeebies. "Just as in pro sports, our costs
are escalating, and we are looking for whatever revenue sources
we can find," says Hancock. "But we would never"--Hancock
reconsiders this never, withdraws it and then continues--"if you
see the day that it's the Tostitos NCAA Basketball Tournament,
you will know that we are in deep s--- in college athletics."
That's the trouble: One man's revenue stream is another man's
S--- Creek. The Big Ten, for instance, has required each of its
11 member schools to sign a contract with a single shoe company
to supply footwear and apparel for every one of that
university's sports teams, thus preventing football and
basketball coaches from picking those plums for themselves. But
when Wisconsin signed with Reebok last summer, the shoemaker
stipulated in the contract that the university "take all
reasonable steps necessary to address any remark by any
university employee" that "disparages" Reebok. This hit the
newspapers, and the clause was removed, but not before exposing
how Orwellian the world of college athletics had become: A
university had sold the free-speech of its employees down the
Or is it the revenue stream? The NCAA has dammed the
milk-and-honey flow of endorsements to student-athletes, and it
applies the ban overbroadly. Maine basketball player Cindy
Blodgett couldn't carry the Olympic torch last summer because
the torch relay was sponsored by Coca-Cola, and Blodgett's
participation would have constituted a tacit product
endorsement. Basketball-playing student Dan Kreft could not
write a onetime column for this magazine, without compensation,
while at Northwestern last winter because that would have
implied an endorsement of SI. (Posing for the cover would have
Journalism students are allowed to write for professional
publications. Music majors may make money playing club gigs.
"Why, because he's an athlete, should Darnell Autry, who's a
drama major, not be allowed to earn money in drama?" asks
Dempsey, referring to the Northwestern football star who had to
take the NCAA to court to appear in a movie last summer. "We're
His power to change that, Dempsey says, lies only in his power
to persuade the member schools. He has apparently done so, for
the January convention passed a rule that allows
student-athletes like Autry, for example, to act. They still
can't be paid for such work, which is odd: The convention seemed
to be saying that athletes can now work for pay, except in their
field of study. But it's a start, the result of Dempsey's
traveling 200 days a year, massaging his message into the
For now he has returned to his meal. Maybe he's just hungry. But
twining spaghetti onto his fork, he might also be Madame
Defarge, silently knitting while secretly plotting the French
Speaking of French history, if any one man within the NCAA is
Victor Hugo's Inspector Javert, it is David Berst, who spent 20
years pursuing the resilient loaf of Wonder bread that is Jerry
Tarkanian. Arrive 20 minutes late for an appointment with Berst,
and the NCAA receptionist smells your fear. "Sit down and try to
relax," she counsels unconvincingly. "He's a very easygoing
man." One gets the impression she has done this before.
This is the principal's office of college athletics. Berst's 19
full-time investigators uncover infractions that are deemed
either "major" or "secondary," just as the Catholic Church
distinguishes mortal from venial sins. "There are too many
rules," says Berst, his 6'4" frame zigzagged across a chair in
his office. He is speaking now about "secondary" sins. "This is
the area where people say, 'The rules are too complex; you need
a manual to understand them.' And we generally agree." Three
thousand times a year schools report to his office that they've
made a mistake: A player has illicitly purchased an ice-cream
cone or illegally received a lift across campus. Rule 18.104.22.168.1
actually addresses the propriety of a recruit's "dessert or
after-dinner snack at the coach's residence." Such cases are
generally resolved with a blizzard of correspondence and often
result in an athlete's missing a single practice.
It is the major cases that engage Berst, "the kind in which you
don't need a manual to understand that you did something wrong,"
as he puts it. "That's usually an offer or provision of money or
like items, or the manipulation of academic records." He speaks
in the staccato legalese of the rule book. "Everyone," Berst
continues, "knows those things are improper." The NCAA completes
20 to 25 such investigations a year. By Berst's estimate, 10% of
the member schools are wanton cheaters.
If the "provision of money"--at least some money--weren't
illegal, there would be fewer rules to be broken, and thus fewer
rule breakers, no? "If the line were drawn a little higher on
amateurism, there might be fewer people inclined to leap over
that line," Berst concurs. "Maybe they would think the rules
were more reasonable. It seems appropriate to hope for that."
Still, loosening the necktie of amateurism will not
substantially reduce Berst's workload. "I've never subscribed to
the view that there's one particular change that would eliminate
cheating in intercollegiate athletics," he says. "I think
cheating is fundamental to what humans are like."
What humans are like. The comic Damon Wayans has said, "I like
the concept of people, but people ruin it." There's a bit of
that despair in Berst, who sees one element common to all major
violators: "They forgot what their values were." Every day his
office receives up to 20 letters, phone calls, faxes and E-mail
transmissions from coaches, boosters, athletic directors,
students, parents, reporters--"every conceivable source," Berst
says--alleging new violations at NCAA schools. "We're always
trying to figure out who has an ax to grind," he says. "But you
can have an ax to grind and still be telling the truth."
The enforcement staff's work is reactive, based entirely on
tips, and all the nation is its stool pigeon. (In fact, the
schools that most concern NCAA staffers are those not
self-reporting violations because 100% compliance with the rules
is deemed impossible.) Many of the investigators have law
degrees, all are poorly paid, and most are treated as lepers
when they arrive on a college campus. Justus, the education
resources director, was a legal-aid attorney before she became
an NCAA investigator in 1984. "It was isolating," she says of
her 2 1/2-year stint as a gumshoe. Justus (pronounced JUS-tice,
almost parodic for an NCAA investigator) lasted longer than
most; she was an optimist who could always see the specimen jar
as half full. "I got to play Charles Kuralt," she says, putting
the best possible face on things. "I got to talk to mothers on
"You spend a lot of time talking to people who aren't telling
you the truth," says Berst, who also came to the NCAA as an
investigator, in 1972. "And when you do that week in and week
out, you begin to wonder whether anyone cares if you're doing it
Oh, some people care. The NCAA investigative staff has been
thoroughly investigated. Don Yaeger (now an SI staff writer)
spent two years doing just that for his 1991 book, Undue
Process: The NCAA's Injustice for All, which garroted the
enforcement staff for refusing to allow its interrogations to be
tape-recorded; for relying on the handwritten summaries of
investigators; for allowing a single incident--say, the
recruiting of an athlete on a weekend--to be recorded as nine or
10 rule violations. The Committee on Infractions, chaired by
Oklahoma law professor David Swank, serves as judge and jury
once evidence against a program is collected, but it cannot
cross-examine witnesses. The accused is afforded little of the
due process that he would be granted in a U.S. courtroom.
No one knows this better than Sandy D'Alemberte, a former
president of the American Bar Association who became president
of Florida State in 1993. Two years later the Seminoles'
football program was investigated regarding allegations of
free-sneaker sprees at Foot Locker and of players' hobnobbing
with agents. After being probed for 11 months, the program was
given a year's probation but not banned from postseason play or
from making television appearances.
"I have complaints with the process, not with the people,"
D'Alemberte says carefully of the NCAA. "I think the office
staff are people of goodwill and competent." However, he
continues, "I thought there were some terrible due-process
violations. Allowing witnesses to give unsworn statements
without cross-examination is a very bad practice. And I thought
some evil got done: Some very good people here were really
slandered by a bad person, an outside witness." One of
D'Alemberte's chief complaints is about the epic length of the
investigation. A speedy trial is promised to U.S. citizens but
not to citizens of the NCAA.
"The proof required is not 'beyond a shadow of a doubt,'" Berst
says. "There's another term, preponderance of evidence. Our
Committee on Infractions operates on the kind of information
upon which reasonably prudent persons would rely in the conduct
of serious affairs."
This is the way he speaks. He is a reasonably prudent person,
conducting serious affairs. "I'm an introvert, and I won't tell
you much about myself," says Berst. He is surprised that
strangers recognize his name, though it is in one newspaper or
another nearly every day. As for magazines, the man is virtually
featureproof. This very publication has attempted more than once
to profile him, without success. "You end up not running the
story because you talk to me and find that there's nothing but
what you see here," he says. "And that's not very exciting.
People must think that I have a trophy room at home, and I don't."
No, the mounted head of Tarkanian does not leer from a paneled
wall in Berst's rec room. Still, Berst's job has colored his
perception of sports. He was the baseball coach at his alma
mater, MacMurray College, in Jacksonville, Ill., when he was
hired by the NCAA a quarter century ago. Nowadays, "I can almost
always watch a contest for what it is and not evaluate what's
going on in either program," he says. But when he fills out his
basketball brackets each March with his family--the NCAA has an
office pool, like every other office in America--he ends up
"knocking a couple of institutions out based on [rules
violations]. That's why I usually lose."
Beyond that, he doesn't pay much attention to games. "I'm not a
sports fan," Berst says. It is a Friday morning, and everyone in
Kansas City is talking about the Chiefs game to be played on
Monday night. Will Berst watch it? "Depends how good Murphy
Brown is," he says.
Still, he cops to some human foibles. "Frankly," he says, "if
you're just a human being trying to do this kind of work, you'd
much rather find something about Notre Dame than you would about
What is the famous line--the NCAA is so mad at Notre Dame that
it's investigating Oklahoma? Berst corrects you. "That was
Tark's line," he says. "And it was, 'The NCAA is so mad at
Kentucky, they're gonna give Cleveland State two more years'
probation.' Great line." His dyspeptic smile will have to pass
for a belly laugh.
Told again that his job sounds lonely, Berst says it is quite
the opposite. "I would dearly love to be the Maytag repairman I
grew up watching on TV," he says. "But I don't see that coming
Once created, ridiculed, regretted and regrettably enforced, the
rules come to rest in Steve Mallonee's brain. It is a strange
and fascinating instrument, capable of magnificent parlor
tricks. Mallonee can hear a song on the radio and immediately
identify its chart date. At the NCAA he has developed
photographic recall of all the main bylaws and most of the 4,000
precedent-setting rule interpretations stored redundantly in
NCAA computers. "I'm not Jerry Lucas," he says. "I can't recite
the New York phone book backward." But coaches and athletic
directors use him as a human index to the manual, an incarnate
"It can work one of two ways," Mallonee says of his perverse
gift. "If somebody calls and says, 'I have a young man who wants
to transfer in baseball and use the one-time transfer
exception,' I say, 'That's 22.214.171.124.' I know that. It could work
the other way, where someone says, 'I'm looking at Bylaw
126.96.36.199,' and I say, 'So you must be dealing with a
student-athlete involved in promotional activities.'"
In other circumstances, his brain might have helped split the
atom. Instead, as Mallonee sits in his office one morning in
November, his brain is absorbing the 150 new pieces of
legislation that are up for passage at the convention in
January. When Mallonee came to the Association as a 27-year-old
law school graduate on April Fools' Day 1986, he was a ravenous
consumer of television sports. "The first four or five years
here, I couldn't watch games or the commercials around games
without saying, 'There's a violation, there's a violation,'" he
says, as if confessing some sickness in a self-help group. "Or
I'd read articles in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and inevitably find
"I'm much better now," he says, a recovering Rain Man of the
rule book. "I realize that my responsibility is not to police
the world." Oh, that the entire NCAA had experienced such an
epiphany. Mallonee has 12 years of rule books aligned on his
office shelf. Each book's spine is wider than the last,
ever-widening ripples on a pond. In 1986 Mallonee's department
fielded 400 questions a week on the rules. Today it receives
2,000, almost half from parents of athletes not yet in college.
That's because the NCAA requires its student-athletes in
Divisions I and II to have completed at least 13 "core" high
school courses in certain academic disciplines to be eligible to
compete as college freshmen. The standards were set by the NCAA
Academic Requirements Committee and passed by the membership. A
group called the Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse (operated by
the Iowa City company that administers the ACT college-entrance
exam) reviews the curricula of the 24,000 U.S. high schools and
certifies their courses as meeting or failing to meet these core
requirements. Students hoping to play sports in college are
expected to keep score of their cores, and more than 110,000
such high schoolers have registered with the Clearinghouse. It
sounds like the Publisher's Clearinghouse, except that these
guys send out letters reading, "You may already be a loser."
Any number of things can go--and have gone--wrong. Some high
schools aren't told which of their courses meet NCAA
requirements until the end of the school year. Some students are
never told by their high schools that their course loads are
insufficient. Other students have taken more rigorous
college-prep courses that inexplicably have not been certified
by the overloaded Clearinghouse.