Last September, the WBCA sent out an email noting they’d been inundated by calls concerning violations during the July “quiet period.” It encouraged coaches to report possible violations to Elizabeth Ramsey, Assistant Director of Enforcement and Liaison for women’s basketball so that the NCAA could do the necessary fact-finding investigations.
“I think we all want the game to be as clean as it can possibly be,” said Sherri Coale, Oklahoma coach and past president of the WBCA. “What we’re trying to do is be as pro-active as possible because, like most things in life, it begins small and snowballs into larger and larger things and, before you know it, there are a lot of major infractions that are skewing the playing field.”
But asking coaches about the severity of recruiting violations or the prevalence of negative recruiting in women’s basketball can be a bit like trying to pin down a ghost: there are feelings, but not a lot of concrete evidence.
“A lot of things that we hear are either told to us by a scholastic or summer league coach,” explained Tulane head coach Lisa Stockton. “It’s basically hearsay, so it’s difficult to prove.”
“It’s a shame, but I think there are a lot of violations,” admitted Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. “A lot of people are concerned about the ethics in women’s basketball, but it seems like more and more people are cheating. I think the common perception is that they’re cheating because you can get away with it. And they’re getting away with it because nobody’s turning them in.”
“Some don’t want to say what’s going on,” agreed Kathleen Richey-Walton, WBCA board member and coach at Southwest Dekalb High School and with the AAU Georgia Metros. “When that takes place, then it’s sort of like, they SAID we can’t, but since no one else is really saying anything, it’s sort of like we can.”
“It’s our own fault,” added McGraw. “We’re sitting back and saying, ‘Oh, yeah, well nothing happens when somebody cheats.’ It’s up to us to be the ones who change that.”
CLEANLINESS BEGINS AT HOME
The first step a coach can take is to ensure their staff is totally engaged with their Compliance Office. “The way the NCAA enforcement program is set up,” said Chris Strobel, Director of Enforcement for secondary infractions, “each member institution has an affirmative obligation to monitor their athletics programs for compliance with NCAA rules and regulations and to self-report those violations when they’re discovered.” Over 95% of secondary infractions are self-reported, said Strobel.
“I flat out tell people that the enforcement staff and the Committee on Infractions (which handles major violations) really are more concerned about institutions that do not report ANY violations than they are about those that report several,” he explained. “The rule book is SO complicated, there are so many different scenarios out there, violations are probably happening. So, if you’re not reporting any, you’re either not catching them – which you’re supposed to be doing – or you’re not reporting them – which you are definitely supposed to be doing.”
SPEAKING ABOUT OTHERS
When it comes to addressing violations outside ones own institution, the WBCA is encouraging coaches to speak up – no matter if it’s a longtime friend or a distant acquaintance. “We don’t want to get into a situation where there is this discomfort with reporting violations,” said Coale. So, she tells her staff, “If you know of people who are doing that, don’t come back and complain to me. Tell me who it is and let’s go through the proper channels – proper channels being first and foremost, I notify the head coach. It can’t be hearsay. It can’t be, ‘I think.’ It has to be ‘I saw this,’ ‘I heard this,’ or ‘I was first person witness.’”
“In the few times in my career that we have observed any of that, I’ve called the head coach and it’s been taken care of immediately. Immediately.”
Even when the supporting evidence may be slim, said Stockton, taking action is always better than letting something fester or become fodder for the rumor mill. “I’ve been involved in something that I just couldn’t prove and we’ve still made calls to those schools. Of course, they couldn’t prove them either. But at least I felt like we informed the compliance people of those schools that there was something questionable in their program. At least we tried.”
DOES IT NEED TO BE FRONT PAGE NEWS?
Currently, while “public reprimand and censure” is a standard NCAA penalty for major violations, it is not a typical penalty for secondary violations. Strobel recognizes that this can lead to public misperceptions. “Some media article will come out reporting some sort of violation on an institution’s part, and then the rest of the world doesn’t hear anything more about it. So they assume, ‘Oh, the NCAA let them off,’ when that’s not true. We’ve processed it, we’ve penalized the institution, we’ve penalized the coach. It’s just not made public.”
The reason is that, along with privacy and legal concerns, secondary violations are considered inadvertent in nature and do not represent a significant competitive advantage. Not to mention, the sheer number of violations (3,916 reported in 2009) would make the public reporting process burdensome.
That being said, McGraw wonders how this “secrecy” impacts people’s willingness to speak up. “Even after you report something, you don’t know what happened. I think that’s the frustration of the coaches: ‘Well, I did turn her in. Nothing happened.’ I think if it was on the front page that this school was reported for these violations, the cheating would stop just a bit. Nobody wants to see their name on the front page for something like that.”
Ultimately, said Coale, “I think we as coaches have the responsibility to do our due diligence and then trust the NCAA to do their due diligence. There has to be that mutual respect or else it will continue to be a quagmire.”
TIP-TOE AROUND TEMPTATION
It’s impossible to ignore how the growth of the women’s basketball has influenced – at times adversely – the actions of coaches. “The support nationally of collegiate programs has changed people’s pressure to win,” acknowledged Stockton. “When you talk 15 years ago, coaches were fired, but not as they are now.” Additionally, she continued, “there’s more money in coach’s and assistant’s salaries. We have basketball operation people now. You used to have a Graduate Assistant. No one fought to get a GA position. No one cheated to get a GA position.”
“I think young coaches,” said Coale, “in particular those who are striving to climb the ladder, land that big recruit, and have that marquee name on their resume have to be real careful to not let the pressure of a particular situation guide their behavior. It’s all our responsibility, as ‘veterans’ of this profession, that they feel enough eyeballs and attention on their activity that the right decision is a little easier to make for them.”
Unfortunately, the decision is more challenging if an assistant finds their head coach turns a blind eye to that ethical line. As a former college coach, Richey-Walton’s understands the loyalty an assistant coach feels they owe their coach. “They’re the ones who got you started and, when you want to go to the next level, they’re going to be the ones doing the recommendations.” But she doesn’t expect an assistant to abdicate his or her own sense of what is right. She refers to the saying on the t-shirts her high school players wear: “Your character is determined by what you do when nobody is looking.”
“That’s the most important thing,” Richey-Walton stressed. “We’ve won a couple of championships at Southwest Academy and we can be proud of them because we know we didn’t have to cheat or cut corners to win. I don’t know how you can be proud of something that you know you didn’t do it the right way. Your career’s going to be over sooner than you realize, and when you look back on it, you want to be proud of what you did.”
CHOICES, DECISIONS AND CONSEQUENCES
One obvious reason for a coach not reporting violations or negative recruiting tactics is the fear of being blackballed. “It’s definitely a real issue out there for assistant coaches,” acknowledged Strobel, “especially the younger ones who are trying to make a name for themselves. I think that we’re actually seeing less of those types of cases. That’s not to say it’s still not out there, but with some of the cases we’ve had, the message that’s getting out there is that the Committee on Infractions understands the dilemma assistant coaches are in. But,” he added, “You’re sacrificing your career by being loyal to this individual who has violated the rules. So you need to really think about which what is more destructive to you in the long run.”
“We all have to make those decisions,” said Coale. “If they were easy we wouldn’t even be talking about it. It really doesn’t matter at the end of the day if someone is going to blackball you or some coach is going to view that as disloyal. What can YOU live with? What do YOU want to stand for? Those are personal decisions that people have to make and, for the good of our game, I think they are necessary decisions.”
“As a head coach,” Coale added, “I think it’s our responsibility to not promote people who don’t speak up. If doing it right enables you to advance, more people will do it right. It’s just like having a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes, the more comfortable you get in bringing those things to light.”