Countdown to the Big Ten: Q&A with Faculty Athletics Rep Jo Potuto
Editor's note: This is the seventh in a series of 10 N-Sider columns that count down Nebraska's journey to become an official member of the Big Ten Conference on July 1, 2011. This column focuses on Jo Potuto, Nebraska's Faculty Athletics Representative who also serves as president of that group's Division 1-A national association, which interacts with the NCAA. The Countdown to the Big Ten series culminates with an N-Sider on Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany on July 1.
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Q: You were a journalism major that became an expert in constitutional law. You were a prosecutor. You're a Rutgers grad, and Seton Hall is part of your resume, yet you're right here in the heart of America as a law professor and Nebraska's Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR). Chancellor Harvey Perlman describes your job as the toughest in intercollegiate athletics, if not the most important. What's the draw for an inveterate baseball fan who loves the Yankees and everything Broadway to be a member of the Nebraska faculty, a liaison between athletics and the institution, and the University of Nebraska's official representative in NCAA affairs?
A: What I love about the Midwest begins with the University of Nebraska and the Law College. My work situation is terrific. The University is a great place to work, and the Law College is a great place to work, and what I do I really love. What I like most about Nebraska are the basic values of honest work for an honest dollar and having no interest in handouts. I like Nebraska because people here are honest and direct in just about everything they do.
Q: You've been the President of the NCAA Division 1-A Faculty Athletics Representatives Association for two years and just recently agreed to head that group for another two years. Why are you prone to be such a catalyst?
A: Faculty Athletics Reps are required by the NCAA at all NCAA institutions. Institutions need someone outside of athletics who has some responsibility for campus control of athletics. What that person does on each campus is defined by the campus. Among faculty reps across the country, the bundle of sticks that I carry is on the very heavy side in terms of campus responsibility and in terms of being visible and active nationally. There has been an association of Faculty Athletic Representatives forever, and it covered all three divisions of the NCAA. There is so much diversity between the smaller schools with no money and major state land grant universities with 40,000 students with major programs and lots of revenue coming into athletics, that it was impossible to speak as Faculty Athletic Representatives from that perspective because there was no way you could get agreement on anything. At the same time, we had a very strong feeling in FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) that virtually every major public issue with college athletics either was unique to the FBS schools or at least had an extreme impact that was not the same in the other two subdivisions. With that being true, the ability to articulate what might be answers to it was difficult in a larger group, so we ended up deciding to form a separate association for the Football Bowl Subdivision. That allows us to weigh in on a football playoff, and it has allowed us to take positions on NCAA legislation that we never would have been able to do otherwise.
Q: Can you enlighten us with your view of the whole BCS (Bowl Championship Series) issue and the Justice Department's interest in the BCS?
A: However the situation resolves itself, it will resolve itself. If the institutions that are automatic qualifiers to the BCS are right - and I think they are - then it's not an anti-trust violation. If it turns out that there's litigation, and it is an anti-trust violation, then I suspect the schools will go back to individual conference relationships with bowls and we will have no more efforts in trying to get No. 1 and No. 2 playing each other. There is an outside chance there would be a playoff, and I think that would get faculty and other interests involved. It's going to be resolved. The bigger issues for college athletics are the general area of amateurism and the big money that's generated by football and to some extent, men's basketball and how that's skewed and valued on campus and how to maintain the principles of amateurism in this world. The subsidiary issue is how enforcement tries to keep competition clean from infractions and violations. Given the constraints on the process and the subpoena power and other kinds of limitations, people who are not part of the NCAA don't have to talk to the enforcement staff. Unless we can generate some confidence that everybody's not only playing by the same rules on the field, but adhering to the same rules off the field, that's going to have a really disastrous impact on competition, confidence in competition and the ethos on campus. Some of these issues are much more far-reaching than the BCS, which is a resolvable issue. It may not be resolvable with the BCS being structured the way it is, but that one has a solution. Some of these other things are more difficult to grab and figure out what we're going to do and how we're going to do it.
Q: You're so busy, and there's so much demand for your time. What motto do you live by, and how do you stay turbo-charged with everything you take on?
A: Rhonda Revelle (Nebraska's head softball coach) told me once that I'm a model multi-tasker. I never thought of myself that way, but I think that's probably accurate. I usually have three or four balls juggling at the same time. Once in a while, there's just too much going on, and the stress gets to me. But generally, you do what everybody does. Some things have to be handled right away, Some have a more long-range deadline and you try to pace your time to do them. Where the rubber meets the road is when something emerging shoots out the planned schedule, then it can be difficult. But a lot of the work I do I really enjoy doing, so in an odd way, it's recreational as well as work.
Q: Can you describe your relationship with the Athletic Department in general and compliance in particular, especially since Gary Bargen (Nebraska's Associate AD for Compliance) says it is not uncommon for him to get emails from you at 2 a.m.?
A: It's important, in my position, to be on national committees, and it's important for the institution to be known nationally because it helps build a reservoir of knowing how to do it right. It's extremely helpful for both the compliance and academic areas. It means you're wired to know what's going on nationally. Generally, I know who to talk to. It means, I know how it has to be done so we don't have to spend time worrying whether we're doing it the right way. It's really important to know how to count to 1-2-3-4 and here we go. With regard to my relationship with compliance and academics, the academic area will change because we're moving to the Big Ten. I used to have what would be described as dotted line responsibility for both the compliance and academic services area and the athletic eligibility services area. For compliance, based on either NCAA rules or conference rules, I have to sign off on most of the documents they're doing. I have to sign off on secondary violations. For anything that looks as though it has some newsworthy impact or has the potential to be an NCAA violation, I have to be involved and be part of the decision-making process. We always talk it out and agree on what we're doing. I can't imagine that we wouldn't agree on a decision because we're always on the same page. Ultimately, I have authority to see the Chancellor, if it looks like there might be a major violation. Then, we could convene a special committee and take it outside of athletics entirely. That team would include student affairs and the general counsel of the university, and I would chair that committee. The worst thing that can happen in a serious investigation is to have those investigating be part of the activity under investigation and then declare yourselves clear. That will not happen here.
Q: Isn't Nebraska a very diligent, compliance-oriented organization?
A: Absolutely, and we've had that reputation forever. We have a culture of compliance that is very clear, and there is no question. All that said, if you have a bad actor who thinks they can get away with something - no matter how good you are or how good your systems are - violations can happen. We have a well-deserved reputation of doing things right, and we want to keep it that way.
Q: Last December, when the NCAA cleared Auburn quarterback Cam Newton to play in the national championship game against Oregon, USA Today went to you for a quote. Why?
A: I served on the committee on infractions and chaired it, and I still substitute now and then (for recent infractions against USC and Connecticut). When I was on the committee, it was inappropriate for me to comment on anything. Now that I'm not on the committee regularly, I feel free certainly to discuss process - what the bylaws say, what they mean and what the considerations are. I've written three or four articles now on NCAA process, and I did one that raised up the Cam Newton issue. One of the things the media consistently doesn't get very well is that student-athlete issues are handled by student-athlete reinstatement staff and institutional issues are handled by the enforcement staff and the committee on infractions. If it turns out that there were violations with the eligibility of Cam Newton, the institution's responsibility will be handled by the committee on infractions. Theoretically, if it turns out that he competed while ineligible, in this process, then that would also be an institutional responsibility.
Q: Most people don't understand the lockstep position FBS schools are in. Even though there are divergent opinions, haven't they been reconciled and aren't FBS schools aligned on major issues?
A: Absolutely, but I think there needs to be even more. The latest iteration of the NCAA structure is very small cabinets that are subject specific - academic ineligibility, recruiting, amateurism, and that has only exacerbated the problem. If you have a cabinet with 20 on it, and you say its focus is recruiting, the opportunity to be sure that you get all the perspective decreases. It just makes it harder, so one of the goals of the association when I became president was to assure that there had to be Faculty Athletics Representatives on the cabinets and on the council. Harvey was on the board at the time. I wrote a letter on behalf of our association, and he got it only because he was a board member. I didn't send it to him specifically. He phoned me and said "You're absolutely right, and I'm going to carry this forward." Between our group and his taking it on at the board level, we got NCAA legislation passed that made more sense to us. The academics cabinet suffers if you have 16 faculty members and four compliance people because you don't have people there who pay the bills and manage the whole enterprise on the athletic side. What we got on each of these cabinets and councils was 20 percent have to be Faculty Athletics Representatives, and 20 percent have to be athletic administrators with broad-based responsibilities. We hope someday it will be higher than 20 percent, but it's a good start.
Q: Can you describe the relationship between a Faculty Athletics Rep and the NCAA?
A: When the NCAA restructured before I became a Faculty Athletics Rep, it was a representative system, so we didn't have one institution/one vote at the convention, but we went through the conference and conference nominations to NCAA committees. Ever since then, it's been harder and harder to get the campus voice and the campus perspective heard in governing. That's not an indictment of conference offices because they do exceptionally well at what they're supposed to do. They understand the issues, and there's no question about that. But none of conference people are on campus. No one from the hired NCAA administrative staff is on campus. Some of them have never been on campus. The campus perspective, I think, is getting increasingly muted. That was the general feeling of the Faculty Athletics Representatives. So one of our issues is to be sure that the campus voice is included in discussions and, as part of that, that the Faculty Athletics Representatives' voice is included. I say campus voice rather than the faculty voice because, although we are from the faculty, when we speak on athletics issues, we speak more generally than just "Here's what the faculty thinks."
Q: Harvey Perlman has said Faculty Athletics Reps are much more in tune with athletics than college presidents. Besides Harvey and Tom (Osborne), who do you represent?
A: When I'm representing Nebraska, I'm representing the athletic side, the alums, the academic side, even donors. Harvey (Perlman) would agree that I'm representing all institutional constituencies to some extent as he does. Presidents can do that, but presidents have been doing it from a thousand feet, and they have a lot of other irons in the fire. They're not in the "day-to-day, here's what's going on" mode. Our group feels, and I certainly feel very, very strongly that the earlier you get all of those viewpoints on the table and argue them out, the better the policy is going to be. We have to have a structure in place that when it gets to a president that doesn't have a wealth of time to be dealing with these kinds of issues, we better have the opportunity to dig down deep and see what the obvious consequences are going to be. To them, at that level, you can't say: "Here are three different viewpoints, you harmonize them." That's a bad process ... a bad, bad process.
Q: What kind of a relationship does the President of Division 1- A FAR have with the commissioners of major athletic conferences?
A: I think conference commissioners do a very good job. I am pretty sure there are conference commissioners out there who think that my group and me in particular have intruded into their domain. But I also believe they appreciate we have a perspective that needs to be included. The other thing with faculty, and now I'm talking about faculty in particular and not campus voice, is looking at issues and asking if there's any research to show us why we support decisions. We are trained to be skeptical and to ask a lot of questions. When you're making policy, it's important to ask the questions, get the answers and sometimes find out that we don't know. Sometimes, we have to take a blind shot at it because we can't do any better. A couple of years ago, for instance, the NCAA added a regional in track and field in between the conference championships and the national championships. There was an extra cost level, and it appeared as though it was designed to allow the smaller conferences to get some qualifiers in the nationals. The athletic directors talked about the added costs, and the faculty talked about adding another week to the season during final exam time. I sat in on a meeting once. There are three divisional vice presidents on the NCAA, and this was before their latest restructuring. I asked how many were on the championship cabinet at the time, and one of them looked at me and said: "You don't understand. This cabinet schedules championships. There are no academic interests there." And I said: "This is exactly why you need these other voices." It's extraordinary to think that scheduling championships is merely getting out the schedule, and if you're Major League Baseball, it's more than just avoiding scheduling a home game on Patriots Day and thinking scheduling has no impact anywhere else. That's a long, long answer to what our major goal is, and that's being interested in the health of intercollegiate athletics. We're interested in getting the best articulation of policy and overarching goals, and that can only be accomplished by assuring that all the voices are at the table early.
Q: What are the biggest myths about the law and enforcement in college athletics?
A: One of the things that you see in newspaper stories all the time is the Jerry Tarkanian quote that the NCAA was so mad at so-and-so that they went and nailed Podunk U. I think there is a perception out there that the enforcement infractions committee always goes after the big schools hard and the little schools more than they deserve. There is an extraordinary misunderstanding about what the student-athlete does and what everybody else does. I think there's maybe a misperception on the extent to which the enforcement infractions committee is naïve about things. The difference between knowing the particular conduct and what's really crude, bad and has a huge negative impact on college athletics and to be able to say they have enough evidence to say that it happened. There is often a confusion of the two, but the failure to make the findings is interpreted as a failure to understand that this is a big problem.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between the athletic department and the faculty and staff of the university?
A: I think it's probably as good as it's possible to be. There are natural tensions. One, the athletic department is in the black and has money to spend. It's not easy to talk about cutting a classic program or letting professors go and then watch raises given on the athletic side. It's not easy to look at facility needs on the campus and then look at what's happening on the athletic side. I don't think there's a campus in the country, frankly, where if you would put athletic facility needs on a general campus facility needs list that any of the athletic needs would hit the top 100. Campus facility needs are the ceiling is falling down or the computer lab is down. There are those who believe that major college athletics doesn't belong on a college campus, but given all of those limits and pressures, I think the relationship here is as good as it is possible to be. The academic services staff makes a real effort to integrate their people - whether it's the tutors or the advisors - into what's happening on campus. They also adhere to the lines of what is appropriate to advise and stay within compliance of the academic rules. I think the general reputation the athletic department has is to be compliant with the rules, and to care deeply about the student-athletes. That has an impact among faculty.
Q: How exciting is it for this university, this city and this state to join a conference as prestigious as the Big Ten?
A: It's a big deal. I've talked about the committee on institutional cooperation, and I don't think we, as faculty, are in a position yet to realize what a big advantage the opportunities for research are going to be. On the academic side, moving to the Big Ten Conference enhances the academic reputation of this institution. I can say that, even though the faculty hasn't changed, the course offerings haven't changed, the research agendas haven't changed and the students haven't changed. All you've done is move an athletic conference, and you get a bump in academic reputation. I think that is true, and I also think that is silly. I think this move is a really big advantage on the academic side because it may well have an impact on student applications and admissions, and it may well have an impact on faculty appointments. Certainly, the cooperative research opportunities will have an impact on the caliber of the faculty and their appointments.
Q: What excites you most about college athletics right now?
A: From a personal perspective, what excites me most is having the opportunity to be involved in other areas and work on other projects that I identify as really necessary. What excites me most generally is the caliber of the student-athletes that come to universities and compete - student-athletes who might not otherwise think about getting a college degree. Even those who come only because they want to compete and have no real interest in a college degree will look at the degree from a different perspective on what they're going to do with their life. I think that's the most important part of college athletics.
Q: What concerns you most about college athletics?
A: What concerns me is all the money that is out there and the behaviors that the money seems to be promoting - from the stresses on amateurism to the intrusions of the third-parties who are willing to spend money in rules-violated ways. What's disconcerting is how young some of these athletes are who are facing it and getting caught up in it. It's not just happening on the college campuses. It's what's happening to these 10 and 11-year-olds who get caught up while competing on these travel teams with third-party influences. Some of them no longer even live with their parents and are not getting solid educations in high school. Third-parties are placing them in high schools just for athletics. It's such an exploitation of kids. I guess I would say a lot of this is not happening at college. It's happening well before college.
Q: When you pour a cup of coffee, open the paper and read about the Fiesta Bowl's issues or Ohio State's problems and see the public cynicism, what goes through your mind?
A: It's depressing, clearly. I think one case is one case too many, even though it's not a perfect world, and it's never going to be a perfect world. You know that whatever happens on any college campus has spillover on your college campus. I mean, we're all in the enterprise together, so it's depressing, and it's worrisome, absolutely.
Q: What would be your Cliff's Notes version on the impact of Title IX?
A: I think Title IX clearly was a jump-start to what ultimately would have occurred anyway - girls and young women involving themselves in athletics. I think athletics competition and participation provides a host of positive values and therefore the opportunities for them to share those values is terrific. The effect has had an impact on all kinds of subsidiary things, such as athletics training leaders, and the opportunity to compete opens doors for women in those areas. I think it has been an amazing jump-start. I happen to think right now that the way we employ Title IX is not a positive. It turns out to be limiting opportunities for boys and men who want to compete in ways that I don't think are helpful.
Q: In an Osborne executive staff meeting, he asked for individual reports, and you proudly, craftily and even humorously (but seriously) announced that you'd just had a lawsuit dismissed. How exciting is that?
A: (Laughter). Well, the Committee on Infractions is a gift that keeps on giving. I was not the named party, but I was deposed in an infractions case that the committee report issued in 2001, and here we are in 2011 and that case was only now in deposition stage. I'm still named in at least one other infractions case, and I was deposed in another. As long as I sub on the committee, it's going to be a whirlwind opportunity.
Q: You work with so many people. Can you share your thoughts about Osborne, the Hall-of-Fame coach turned athletic director?
A: He's very genuine and very committed to the university, the state of Nebraska and the people of Nebraska. I think he understands Nebraska Athletics through and through. He wants to assure that Nebraska student-athletes are provided the best so they can succeed on the field, on the court or in the swimming pool. He wants the best support for their course work and to make sure that they graduate as full human beings. I also think he wants to see this institution and athletic department be placed as well as it can be placed to succeed in athletics going forward.
Q: How about Perlman, the former dean of Nebraska's Law School and now UNL's chancellor:
A: Harvey and I have worked together for many, many years. We were on a major drafting project one year when I first came to Nebraska. He is very bright and an amazing tactician. He would certainly be somebody you would want to align with, if you want to make an argument to position yourself to succeed. Like Tom, he's a native Nebraskan who cares about the state and has a genuine passion for the institution and certainly for the Law College. He is a first-rate teacher and very well known nationally in both athletics and academics.
Q: You've worked closely with Bill Hancock, the executive director of the BCS. How would you describe that relationship?
A: I don't know Bill as well as I know Tom and Harvey, but he, too, is a very genuine human being who's very bright and has a passion for college athletics. All three of these men have very strong family ties and family values. They all also happen to be good writers, but Bill is probably the best writer of the three.
Q: What do you think of Delany, the guy who created all of this hoopla by inviting Nebraska to join the oldest conference in the country?
A: You may not know this, but Jim Delany went to St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, New Jersey, and so did his father and his grandfather before him. I grew up in Newark. We went to different high schools, but I know where St. Benedict's is, and my nephew went to Seton Hall Prep, which was and still is a big rival of St. Benedict's. Jim is an incredibly good "big picture" guy. I mean, he's looking ahead two, three, four or five years, and the Big Ten Network is a perfect example of his vision. No one had thought about creating a network for their own conference. Obviously, he's very good at the day-to-day stuff, but I think he's exceptional at the visionary stuff that very few people can do well. He's articulate, and he's done a very, very, very good job for the Big Ten. He was an enforcement guy with the NCAA, so he really does understand that area and the need to have an enforcement infractions program functioning well. And he really has the savvy and the on-the-ground smarts of someone who grew up in Newark. He's not naïve about things. He's not necessarily cynical, but he always has his eyes open about what's going on. That's why he's a very successful commissioner.