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Target: NCAA -- Is A Catastrophe On The Horizon?

The alleged "targeting" of some programs by the NCAA are nothing compared to the larger problems it faces.

Get used to this pose from Mark Emmert.
Get used to this pose from Mark Emmert.
Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

Mark Emmert has unquestionably been a lightning rod for criticism during his time at the NCAA, and this past week, ESPN's Outside the Lines examined the problems that Emmert has suffered since his elevation to NCAA president in 2010. John Clay had a thoughtful piece on this which I'm sure most of you have read, and which produced the impetus for this story.

After reading the OTL piece carefully, one of the things that sticks out the most is a perception that Emmert runs the NCAA with an entirely top-down, autocratic approach. Whether or not this is true, the perception appears to be leading to a rapid decline in NCAA employees with experience in the field, especially in the enforcement division. While all this is going on, Emmert is away from the office up to 60% of the time, and has taken on other obligations on corporate boards. In other words, he has an awful lot on his plate to be running anything in an autocratic manner.

What we'll try to do in this rather lengthy piece. So grab a cup of coffee, or an adult beverage, and strap in.

John Calipari and NCAA "Targeting"

The allegation that got the most notice from the Big Blue Nation is this one:

Targeting specific head coaches and programs presumed as being "dirty," particularly within a separate in-house group investigating basketball.

Big Blue paranoia is a standard feature of Kentucky fans, and this week we saw a lot of tweets and chatter on the message boards that the NCAA was targeting John Calipari. After all, what coach, in the perception of virtually every fan who isn't a card-carrying member of the Big Blue Nation, could possibly deserve to be "profiled" more than Calipari? Despite the mitigating facts behind them, Calipari was head coach at two schools where the basketball programs lost big chunks of wins due to players breaking NCAA rules. That, and his unparalleled success in recruiting make him public enemy #1 to many in the college basketball world.

Those who think Calipari is doing something wrong are not confined just to fans, either. The sports media is replete with people who are just positive Calipari is cheating somehow. The fact that Calipari has been at Kentucky for three full seasons without any NCAA problems have forced many of his detractors underground, but they are still there, still whispering dire warnings in the ears of anyone who will listen, especially the ears of the NCAA.

What isn't being considered by the BBN is that if you are an agency invested with the requirement to investigate schools, and you have limited resources, it makes sense to "profile" the subjects of your investigation and figure out who is most likely to commit violations. Many would object to that as unfair, but it is by far the most efficient way to handle such a large problem. If a school has a coach that has been in NCAA trouble before, or has a bad reputation, any rational organization would apply a "squeaky wheel" approach. This is especially true of schools that will draw a lot of media attention.

The thing is, though, that Kentucky isn't squeaking these days. The "marriage" of John Calipari with a competent and vigilant compliance staff like the one run by Sandy Bell, in the three years since Calipari came to Kentucky, has completely obliterated even the smallest appearance of impropriety. Because of the complexity of the NCAA rules and the media interest in the Kentucky-Calipari juggernaut, the lack of even a suggestion of anything smelling bad at UK, other than the predictable conspiracy theorists of rival fans and detractors, has probably taken Coach Cal & Co. as far away from the NCAA "enemies list" as is possible for such a high-profile and successful program.

For years, the NCAA has made no secret of the fact that it looks hardest and longest at the top recruits in each class. The reason for that is that the top recruits are always the ones who draw the interest of the unsavory hustlers looking to illegally buy their way into a position of influence with the incipient basketball millionaires. With its limited resources, the NCAA rationally tries to apply the homespun wisdom of bank robber Willie Sutton: They look hardest at the top recruits and top programs because that's where the money is most likely to be.

The NCAA/Media axis

Which brings me to my next point; The question nobody is asking, but should be, is about the relationship between the sports media and the NCAA. CBS Sports, perhaps inadvertently, demonstrated the media/NCAA relationship in this story about a coach at a small Division III school, Concordia University, which had a sex scandal involving the baseball coach. The NCAA virtually ignored the scandal, and CBS compares that to the Penn St. scandal and wonders why the difference? Is this "selective enforcement?"

Penn State, you can be the hero. You can look good. With Concordia, it is a Division III school. Who cares? One was high-profile, and you went after Penn State with guns blazing for their failure to be moral. Why is Concordia different? Both are failures of running a moral institution." -Former NCAA enforcement director

The reality is, seemingly, that the media drives the NCAA. When they report on a potential issue, the NCAA gets interested. The sports media is acting as the investigative arm for the NCAA, to a large extent. Rarely, the NCAA will institute an investigation after a tip from someone other than the media, but the vast majority of these investigations are driven by media reports. It is also fairly obvious that the media understands this incestuous relationship even as it somewhat hypocritically writes about the unfairness of it all.

Where it really gets interesting is that media interest in any particular matter seems to drive the intensity of the NCAA enforcement arm. If a scandal gets a lot of reporting, it also gets more investigators, and these investigators become very driven to generate the maximum damage to the program that is the subject of the frenzy. This is exactly what happened at Penn St., exactly what is happening at Miami and what caused the disastrous faux pas by investigators in the Miami matter. This hits at the crux of it:

Penn State, you can be the hero. You can look good. With Concordia, it is a Division III school. Who cares? One was high-profile, and you went after Penn State with guns blazing for their failure to be moral. Why is Concordia different? Both are failures of running a moral institution." -- Former NCAA enforcement director

The media wonders why the NCAA ignored Concordia and slapped unprecedented and, in my view, unethical penalties on the Nittany Lions? The answer is simple — the media never bothered to report on Concordia to any great degree. If they had, you had best believe the NCAA would have been swarming all over it and handing down sanctions on live TV.

Which brings us to the major problem with Mark Emmert as president of the NCAA — his constant desire to be in front of the camera, and in front of reporters. One of the biggest reasons Emmert is such a lightning rod for criticism is that he constantly puts himself out there, often making conflicting, dogmatic, or downright nonsensical statements. Those add up, and when he is the only face you ever see, it's easy to conclude he is running the NCAA as his own private fiefdom.

Coaches and Athletics Directors need not apply

The perception of Emmert's autocratic style seemingly has validity, too. All too often, Emmert misreads his membership, and puts the focus on things that his membership either doesn't want, or that produce the exacerbation of the division between the wealthy programs and the less-wealthy ones.

"We don't want the NCAA getting back at us by going looking for one of our kids who might have gotten a free soda once," -Anonymous BCS Athletics Director

That has lead to several embarrassing moments, including seeing many of the relaxed recruiting rules instituted recently struck down by the membership, as well as trying to fast-track the $2000 stipend for athletes idea only to run into major pushback from smaller universities.

This perception of NCAA incompetence has driven several conference commissioners to threaten leaving the NCAA and creating a super-division of about 75 major conference schools. The problem is, and this is something that is rarely reported on, Emmert is kowtowing to the people who would ultimately have to make such a decision; the university chancellors and presidents.

Under Emmert, the NCAA has taken input almost exclusively from university chancellors and presidents, and has almost completely shut out the athletics directors and coaches from the rule-making process. While the leaders of the NCAA member institutions certainly have tried to do the right thing, they are necessarily distant from the actual problems they are attempting to solve, leading to tension between them and their athletics directors and coaches. "You voted for what?" is probably the first thing out of the mouths of the AD's when the school's president or chancellor comes back from an NCAA session.

Why haven't we heard more from the coaches and athletics directors? Because of their fear of the NCAA. Consider:

Why are these ADs -- all of whom work in BCS automatic qualifying conferences -- being quoted without their names attached? Still another AD explained the need for anonymity. "We don't want the NCAA getting back at us by going looking for one of our kids who might have gotten a free soda once," the AD said.

This is no surprise, it's the same everywhere in politics, from national down to the office: Talking negatively about those in power can get you in trouble, whether he be the President of the United States, your office supervisor, or the NCAA watchdogs. The thing is, too, that these guys realize Emmert can drive the enforcement machine to a large degree, and a visit by an NCAA investigator appears to them to be only a provocative comment away. Whether that is actually so is certainly not clear, but since Emmert is largely seen as an authoritarian figure, fair or not, that's the perception.

Where we're headed

Ultimately, the NCAA is now in a situation where seeing the major revenue-creating programs leave the institution is a real possibility. The fault for this lies partially in the way the NCAA is organized, giving equal power to the smallest schools and making it far too easy to achieve Division I status.

What's holding it all together right now is that, despite the bluster from the coaches, AD's and conference commissioners, the university presidents and chancellors are cut from a different cloth. Most of them are academics, and as such, tend to see value in keeping themselves unified under one banner, and tend to be more egalitarian in their thinking. It's much easier to talk about forming a new athletics association than it is to get the university leadership to agree to do it, which is probably one reason Emmert decided to make the NCAA a presidents-and-chancellors-only affair. In that respect, he has placed himself in a position that's much easier to defend, as you can see by the comments of the NCAA Execrative Committee members in the OTL piece.

Sooner or later, though, there will have to be a reckoning. Bigger schools are not going to let the have-nots dictate to them much longer. The momentum for change is clearly there, and as we saw in conference reorganization over the last few years, when the push for change gets enough momentum in college sports, it's hard to stop.

While the college presidents and chancellors of the "haves" may be unwilling to actually leave the NCAA and form their own regulatory body, they are much more likely to consider revamping the current system to place BCS schools outside the reach of the votes of smaller universities, and put them into a separate divisional structure. Some have referred to this as "Division IV" or "Division 4."" What is being floated is the idea that larger schools should have the ability to remove the money concerns of smaller schools from the deliberative process, freeing them up to create a "stipend" for their student-athletes, and similar such rules that smaller schools can't afford.

The thing is, though, that the BCS and smaller schools would still be pulling from the same set of players, and telling smaller programs that they are going to have to live with an uncompetitive arrangement when it comes to recruiting is going to be a very tough sell. Right now, the smaller schools have the power to totally nix any "Division 4" idea, and lots of motivation to do just that. The downside to that approach is that eventually, the BCS presidents and chancellors are going to come under so much pressure to withdraw from the NCAA as currently constituted that it will grudgingly happen if the "Division 4" proposal keeps getting voted down.

So the question is, who will give in first? My money is on the smaller schools -- they see the handwriting on the wall, and they are just going to have to live with it, or face something that may well reduce their chances of drawing in some of the better student-athletes to near zero. Another factor is the O'Bannon lawsuit currently winding its way through the courts. If that doesn't get settled out of court, it could wind up a catastrophe the consequences of which nobody can foresee. Even a settlement could force a radical reorganization of the NCAA at minimum, or it's outright dissolution.

College athletics is now living in interesting times. That's considered a curse for a reason.