Asking an NCAA compliance officer about Antoine Turner, homeless Boise State player

KTVB

Oklahoma compliance's executive director, Jason Leonard, helps explain how schools can and can't help players in need of assistance. Speaking of Oklahoma, anyone up for pasta?

1. Antoine Turner is a JUCO defensive end on his way to play for Boise State. Until Thursday, he was also homeless.

Turner had been living in cars and park benches while he finished classes at Fullerton Junior College in California. Boise TV station KTVB ran a feature on Turner's rough path to the Broncos, which included being displaced from his New Orleans home after Hurricane Katrina and losing his mother to cancer.

A flood of offers to help came in from Bronco fans.

2. The problem was, if any Boise State fan or booster extended help -- "benefits," as termed by the NCAA -- to a homeless future Bronco, the player would've become ineligible. He would be unable to compete in 2014 and maybe longer.

Even though Turner was homeless and hungry, something as small as a gift card to a restaurant could strip him of the chance to earn a degree and possibly play professionally one day. Boise State fans were understandably upset.

3. As Turner's story spread throughout college football, one popular idea circulating social media was to avoid a potential violation by raising money among non-Boise fans and boosters, just regular college football fans with no defined connection to Boise State University wanting to help a student-athlete in need. Except that's still a violation.

Without the NCAA granting an exemption to allow Boise State to provide Turner with food and lodging, any form of charity -- no matter how unconnected to Turner's future program or how earnest the motives of the donor -- would actually make Turner's plight worse.

The NCAA granted that waiver Wednesday afternoon, a day or two after Boise State told SB Nation the program was made aware of Turner's situation by the KTVB report.

Boise State's compliance office did not return multiple interview requests, so we asked Jason Leonard, executive director of Oklahoma's compliance department, to help clarify. Leonard and OU are no strangers to national compliance headlines, as their self-reported "Pastagate" violation arrived just before a new NCAA ruling on unlimited meals and snacks for players.

SB Nation: So why is helping someone in a situation like Antoine Turner's a violation of NCAA rules? Say Boise hadn't received a waiver from the NCAA to find this guy shelter; some random benefactor couldn't have found him a motel room?

Leonard: What a compliance department has to examine is whether or not the individual is receiving the benefit specifically because they are a student-athlete. Basically, the determination is whether or not the benefit in question would be offered to any other person in his situation.

SB Nation: And since his situation gained national attention because he's a college football player, any funds generated from that could violate his status as an amateur athlete?

Leonard: That would be the issue. If a prospective student-athlete received benefits from a source outside of the athletics department, the compliance department would have to investigate and make a determination. In this particular case, I don't think that step was necessary, since a waiver was filed and approved by the NCAA.

SB Nation: Can you explain the Student Assistance Fund program and why Turner's situation was considered special?

Leonard: The Student Assistance Fund is money provided to institutions by the NCAA to be used for any number of things that benefit student-athletes. And it's used often. A few examples of SAF use would be if a student-athlete needs a flight home to attend a funeral or if a student-athlete has a child and needs assistance with daycare.

In this particular case, Boise would have to file a waiver to use SAF for Turner, because Turner isn't technically a student-athlete yet. He's still a prospect until he steps onto campus for his first full day of classes and attends class in June.

SB Nation: So something like a student-athlete who finds himself homeless, there's actually a fund set up by the NCAA to assist that.

Leonard: Correct. The SAF fund could be used. The SAF fund is one of the positive things the NCAA has created to assist student-athletes.

SB Nation: What doesn't the SAF cover? Obviously this money could just be handed to any player that's deemed needy by the standards of the current cost-of-attendance debate.

Leonard: Correct. There are a few restrictions, such as it can't be used to supplement a grant-in-aid or as a student-athlete stipend.

SB Nation: As someone in the field, do you view this or Pastagate as the better example of how complicated and frustrating the world of compliance is right now?

Leonard: It is very complicated and sometimes frustrating. There was a push a year or two ago to deregulate on a national level and get rid of the minutiae in the [NCAA's compliance] manual. Specifically, remove those bylaws that couldn't be enforced or really just didn't make any sense.

But I think in Boise's situation, the process worked. The waiver was approved.

As for Pastagate, once a person knows the history of the violation it's much, much less of a story. Specifically, it was the NCAA definition of a meal verses a snack. We thought pasta was a meal and not a snack, and for this particular event, we could only serve a snack. The violation was never about portion size. They initially agreed, when the violation was processed, then changed their minds ... which is great for the student-athletes.

It is very complicated and sometimes frustrating.

SB Nation: Gabe Ikard, one of the players involved in Pastagate, joked publicly that OU made sure his girlfriend was "compliant official" after the couple had been seen sitting courtside at an Oklahoma City Thunder game. Is that an example of how insane things have become?

Leonard: Compliance officials clearly have to cross their t's and dot their i's!

However, in that particular matter, it wasn't about any one person attending the Thunder game. If our office ever comes across a situation in which one of our student-athletes shows up on the front row of a Thunder game, we’re going to inquire. And we're going to make sure that that particular student-athlete didn't receive that courtside ticket because of his status as college football player. We have a standard affidavit that many student-athletes, including Gabe Ikard, have signed in the past attesting to that very fact.

SB Nation: What's your most common problem at this point? Social media?

Leonard: Social media has certainly made things more complicated for compliance personnel, so much that we hired a person full-time a few years ago to do nothing but examine social media for potential issues. Currently, with all the technology that is used in recruiting, a huge challenge is what is and isn't permissible and how to ensure that we enforce those NCAA rules that apply.

SB Nation: Your office is probably the only one in the athletic department actively campaigning for more contact from fans and boosters with questions.

Leonard: Absolutely. We're very prideful of customer service and the experience fans receive at Oklahoma. Our phones are never off.

SB Nation: So what's your favorite kind of pasta?

Leonard: Ha! Not surprisingly, I don't really eat pasta. At my age, I need to stick to a high-protein diet.

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