Can $1-Million Keep Ohio State’s Sports Program Clean?

If you’re looking for a job in college sports these days, the compliance office may be the place to turn, as some big universities are adding scores of positions in response to costly NCAA scandals.

This week I look inside one of those programs, Ohio State University, which has doubled its athletics compliance staff since its tattoos-for-memorabilia scandal. The Buckeyes now have 14 full-time rules enforcers, with an annual athletics-compliance budget of $1.1-million.

Ohio State has over 1,000 athletes—more than double the number of some Southeastern Conference programs—so it probably needs more monitors than most athletic departments.

Having more people won’t necessarily help it avoid future problems, but the supersized staff sends the signal to the NCAA that the university is doing everything possible to keep its eye on things.

At a time when the Division I Committee on Infractions has slapped more programs than ever with the dreaded “failure to monitor” penalty, that is surely part of the calculation for the Buckeyes.

I asked Gene Smith, the athletic director, if a ramp-up in staffing gives programs like Ohio State a competitive advantage against smaller institutions. He said it definitely does, given that his people have more time to send NCAA waivers, answer coaches’ questions, and evaluate prospects.

Of the seven new full-time hires at Ohio State, the most interesting one is Jason Singleton, who is the focus of my story. A former captain and star basketball player there, he led the Buckeyes to the 1999 Final Four. That record was later wiped out because of NCAA violations.

Singleton has the unusual experience of knowing what it feels like to lose a Final Four banner and to present a case before the NCAA’s infractions committee. And he has some interesting stories to tell about the NCAA, where he worked the past five years, most recently as an investigator on the basketball enforcement staff.

He admits he’s an unlikely choice to help Ohio State restore its reputation. “I wasn’t a saint here,” he told me while we walked the sidelines of a Buckeyes’ football game together this fall. “I gave the compliance people a run for their money.”

As a student, he charmed his way to a coveted faculty parking decal and acquired a long-distance telephone code that he and teammates used to charge calls to the university. (The players repaid the charges after the calls were traced to the basketball locker room.) That background, along with the maturity to admit his missteps, appears to give him credibility among players and coaches.

At Ohio State, he will spend most of his time helping to educate players on the rules. He holds weekly education sessions for the football team (pre-tattoo scandal, those happened once a semester). In one session, he focused on gambling laws and the state’s new casino. In another, Jason Williams, a former NBA player who served jail time for shooting a limousine driver, talked about the danger of alcohol and drugs.

Just as importantly, Singleton will spend time in local bars and restaurants where players hang out, making sure that shop owners and boosters know the rules.

He will also act as a sort of hammer, investigating potential problems and getting tough if coaches or players don’t pay heed to his advice.

But all the watchers in the world won’t keep bad people away. The best way to help programs stay out of trouble is to hire the right coaches and hold them accountable, Thad Matta, Ohio State’s basketball coach told me.

“The job starts at the top,” he said. “That’s me and how we do things and the caliber of kid we recruit.”

The university, too, is expecting more of coaches. Starting this season, each assistant football coach is responsible for ensuring that every player has a checking account and a personal budget (players can’t suit up otherwise). The coaches are required to monitor players’ spending habits to make sure they don’t get in financial trouble. They must also keep tabs on where players spend the holidays and other breaks, and how they’re getting from place to place.

Those moves bother critics who say the university has no business meddling so much in students’ personal affairs. Leaders here say they are mostly just trying to help players learn to spend responsibly and stay out of trouble with boosters.

“Some of our guys from low socioeconomic environments were getting a $3,000 Pell Grant, and all of a sudden they’re spending it on an iPhone and whatever else today’s bling is,” says Smith, the AD. “Now, we’re teaching them about their cars, their apartment leases, and how to have a budget. An assistant coach is engaged—not just the compliance office.”

Just as important, he wants coaches knowing about players’ potential money troubles early so they can help ward off problems, including possible NCAA violations.

“We want coaches saying, ‘Help me understand why you have a hold on your account, why you’re delinquent in paying your apartment lease,” Smith says. “It gives us a chance to see if they’re going to get into financial problems, and that they don’t go find another way to take care of it.”

(Photo by Leonardo Carrizo for The Chronicle)

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