Critics have taken swings at the NCAA since President Theodore Roosevelt influenced its formation more than a century ago to curb violence in football games. Volumes have been devoted to college athletics’ ills. Even the NCAA’s original leader, Walter Byers, attacked the organization in a book written nearly 20 years ago.
As March Madness carries on, culminating in the 75th Final Four celebration in Atlanta next weekend, it’s easy to lose sight of the weighty issues confronting college sports.
But they’re there, bubbling beneath the surface. The very foundation of college athletics shows cracks, and more are asking if the NCAA is working for its membership and what shape a future college sports governance structure might take.
“I’ve just heard more questioning comments about whether this structure, or this organization, can meet the needs of the multitude of stakeholders,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said recently while in Kansas City for the conference tournament. “Confidence in the association is at an all-time low.”
But the volume has increased — and the trust has been damaged — the last several months, largely in reaction to the NCAA’s handling of recent high-profile investigations involving Miami and Penn State that, in different ways, were conducted outside normal procedures.
Those cases came on the heels of other questionable calls in punishment involving some of college sports’ most storied programs — UCLA basketball and Ohio State and Southern California football.
The backlash is happening against a backdrop of extraordinary financial prosperity that has created geographical shifts in the form of conference realignment, which the NCAA is powerless to control, and could bring college sports into court to defend a policy of not sharing its riches with its labor force — the athletes.
NCAA president Mark Emmert, who makes about $1.6 million annually based on the most recent NCAA tax return, made his first visit to the Sprint Center this month as the arena played host to early-round NCAA Tournament games. As he sat backstage, the din of March Madness ringing in his ears, Emmert said these are uncharted waters for college sports.
“It’s clearly one of the most dynamic times, if not the most dynamic times, in the history of college sports,” Emmert said. “I’m not sure anybody could have seen the number of issues that have surfaced. It is a challenging time.”
Historically, reaction to the NCAA’s unpopular decisions has been restricted to the teams and fan bases that thought the organization was abusing its power and out to get them. But those feelings didn’t resonate in the wider college sports community.
That changed during the last few months with the Miami and Penn State cases.
The NCAA’s probe into Miami’s extra-benefits scandal proved to be one of the organization’s most embarrassing moments when it was revealed major missteps were made in the investigative process, including paying the attorney of imprisoned Miami booster Nevin Shapiro, who allegedly provided hundreds of thousands in cash to dozens of athletes, to help the NCAA gather evidence against the university.
The NCAA dismissed Julie Roe Lach, its vice president for enforcement, after an internal investigation uncovered “a very severe case” of unethical conduct by the department. The NCAA launched a self-investigation, and on a teleconference with reporters to explain the findings, Emmert was asked if the conduct had damaged the NCAA’s reputation. “The damage is for those people who were already skeptics or cynics, this feeds into their cynicism.”
To some, it sounded as if Emmert assumed no responsibility to the damaging actions that occurred on his watch.
“I spoke to an athletic director whose program had gone through an NCAA investigation,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a former Duke basketball player. “He told me he didn’t get to choose his investigators, didn’t get to wrap up his investigation in two weeks and didn’t get to see a draft of the results, which the NCAA did.
“If (Emmert is) not accountable for this, for what is he accountable? What buck stops on his desk?”
Miami president Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services under President Bill Clinton, tore into the NCAA.
“The lengthy and flawed investigation has demonstrated a disappointing pattern of unprofessional and unethical behavior (by the NCAA),” Shalala said. “Regardless of where the blame lies internally with the NCAA, even one individual, one act of malfeasance, both taints the entire process and breaches the public trust.”
A former NCAA staff member who worked in legislative services more than a decade ago said the tone of investigations has changed.
“What I’ve noticed is a sense of trust eroding from the public and the membership itself toward the NCAA,” said the former staff member, who asked not to be identified because of a continued working relationship with the NCAA. “Part of that is a feeling like, ‘We’re out to get you.’”
That’s the sense in the case of Penn State, as well. The NCAA is defending itself in Pennsylvania over the punishment in the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal case.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett claimed the NCAA’s severe penalties against Penn State — a $60 million fine, a four-year bowl/playoff ban and scholarship reductions — were levied without due process. Indeed, the NCAA bypassed its investigative process. Penn State trustees hired former FBI director Louis Freeh to conduct an investigation, and his findings were accepted by the NCAA.
Emmert defended the NCAA’s action.
“The Penn State measures were largely supported by the membership,” Emmert said.
Individually, any of the cases would cause a public-relations headache for the NCAA. Collectively, they’ve caused enough alarm that presidents from an entire conference questioned Emmert’s leadership.
Last month, in an email memo directed at Fresno State president John Welty, who has served on the NCAA’s major governing bodies responsible for setting policy and oversight, presidents of the Mountain West Conference expressed their concern.
The memo, obtained by CBSSports.com, read, “Is it time for the presidents to seek new NCAA leadership or a new organization? The NCAA had evidenced decisions that focus on the trivial and penalize our athletes. The salaries for NCAA leadership are excessive and an embarrassment to the Mountain West schools. The decision making is cumbersome and oblique.”
A day after the memo was published, the conference issued an official statement that read, “Emmert’s leadership during these tough times is greatly appreciated.”
Jonathan Duncan, a Kansas City attorney who has litigated cases for the NCAA since 1998, replaced Roe Lach as the NCAA’s new enforcement director and said restoring confidence is the priority.
“It’s been a difficult time, and I’ve tried to acknowledge that these are difficult days,” said Duncan, who attended William Jewell and the Kansas School of Law. “My focus obviously is on enforcement. There are questions and concerns about the NCAA, and that’s not unusual. There is always room for improvement.
“The one thing that attracted me to the NCAA is it is constantly trying to improve what it does. It looks at policies, procedures and practices, and that’s what’s happening right now. I’m glad to be part of it.”
Enforcement isn’t the NCAA’s only battlefront.
With broadcast rights to major-college sports climbing into the billions — the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament is in the early stages of a 14-year deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting worth $10.8 billion — amateurism may be in for its biggest test.
If the plaintiffs prevail in what’s known as the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit, student-athletes could receive a share of the revenues generated by the college sports, including billions in television contracts.
Earlier this month, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany raised eyebrows when he said a ruling against the NCAA for using college athletes’ likeness and names without compensating the athletes could do serious damage to major-college sports, suggesting his schools could choose to de-emphasize athletics, perhaps to the point of not offering athletic scholarships. Delany submitted a declaration with several other colleges sports leaders, including Bowlsby and Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, in federal court supporting the NCAA.
Delany said, “It has been my long-standing belief that the Big Ten’s schools would forgo the revenues in those circumstances and instead take steps to downsize the scope, breadth and activity in their athletic programs. Several alternatives to a pay-for-play model exist, such as the Division III model.”
The money in college sports is enormous. Besides the NCAA Tournament, which this month enjoyed its highest first weekend TV ratings in 23 years, the major conferences that play football in the Bowl Championship Series have multimillion-dollar TV deals. The Big 12’s is worth about $250 million annually. Schools and the NCAA profit from an athletes’ likenesses through merchandise sales. (The O’Bannon lawsuit was filed in 2009 when the former UCLA star saw his likeness on a video game and wanted to know why he hadn’t gotten a cut.)
The answer lies in their amateur status. Meanwhile, the money college sports produces has to go somewhere — and it has flowed into the salaries of coaches and administrators and into new and refurbished facilities on campuses across the country.
The NCAA has attempted to address the issue with a stipend for athletes. In 2011, Emmert got a $2,000 annual stipend passed by the Division I board of directors that would have amounted to about $200 per month to the athletes. But the proposal was overridden by member schools. Another stipend plan is expected to be announced in April.
The Star surveyed Big 12 basketball players and asked if an additional $200 per month was enough to cover their expenses. Responses were received from 95 players, about 63 percent of those who suited up at the Big 12 tournament, and 63 players, or 66.3 percent, said that that the $200 would be enough to meet their needs.
Also, 58 percent said that all athletes, not just those in the revenue-producing sports of football and men’s basketball, should receive a stipend.
“I know our jerseys have our name on the back, but everybody’s jersey, no matter what sport they play, has Kansas on the front,” said Kevin Young, a senior forward on the KU men’s basketball team. “If there was ever a stipend, I think it should be available to everybody.”
Through the controversy of the last few months, there have been triumphs for Emmert.
In January, the NCAA passed 25 rules reforms to help streamline its cumbersome manual. But four days later came the revelation of the NCAA’s enforcement problems in the Miami case.
Jim Haney, president of the Kansas City-based National Association of Basketball Coaches, is happy with progress being made on rules reform under Emmert’s watch. Specific reforms have increased the amount of time coaches can spend with players and reduced recruiting restrictions.
“I’d say our relationship with the NCAA is as strong as it’s been in years,” Haney said.
Last week, Emmert said he’s working to redefine “lack of institutional control,” to separate the behavior of a university from an individual.
In Emmert’s example, if a university president, coach and student-athletes are operating inside the rules and a player has dealings with an agent, “does that represent a lack of institutional control? No.”
New academic regulations have been enacted. Teams’ postseason eligibility is tied to the roster’s academic performance and stricter standards will apply to freshmen who enter college in 2016. These have brought concern from coaches but applause from the academic side.
And yet, the criticism of Emmert and the NCAA has been loud enough in the last few months that the NCAA Executive Committee issued a vote of confidence to Emmert on behalf of Michigan State’s president Lou Anna K. Simon, chairwoman of the group.
“Mark Emmert was hired to lead a major transformation of the NCAA,” the statement read. “Much has been accomplished without fanfare, such as academic reforms, enhanced fiscal accountability and organizational transparency.”
In team sports, the vote of confidence is often the last statement made by an organization before a firing.
But it appears Emmert’s job is safe, and on his day in Kansas City, in a Sprint Center backstage makeshift office with a gift basket of goodies awaiting, he maintained an assuredness, a confidence, about how the difficulties have been handled.
“Where we’ve had problems, the people who needed to be held accountable were held accountable,” Emmert said. “We’re confident in the decisions we’ve made.”