Under Emmert, NCAA enforcement division has gone from bad to worse
In a comprehensive story in this week's Sports Illustrated, senior writers Pete Thamel and Alexander Wolff go inside the Nevin Shapiro case at Miami and explore how the NCAA mishandled it. Here is some additional information that doesn't appear in the story. For the complete magazine story and to buy a digital version of the issue, go here.
On May 11, 2011, all NCAA employees were required to attend a day-long meeting that began at the ballroom of the J.W. Marriott near NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis.
When the employees returned to the NCAA's offices that day, they found banners featuring corporate buzzwords like communication, accountability and inclusion had replaced banners of famous athletes and inspirational quotes. The sidewalks and bridge near NCAA headquarters featured similar messages.
The day marked the grand rollout of One Team One Future, one of NCAA president Mark Emmert's internal initiatives to improve the work culture at the NCAA.
What unfolded epitomizes Emmert's two-and-a-half-year NCAA tenure -- plenty of flash with little tangible results. When NCAA employees arrived at their desks that day, their computer screen savers and phone backdrops were adorned with One Team One Future logos. But they weren't quite prepared for the grand rollout, with Emmert's introduction coming by a voice-of-God narrator amid a backdrop of music, strobe lights and video.
"It's the Jim Carrey movie Yes Man, where he goes to that big inspirational thing," says former NCAA investigator Abby Grantstein. "The culture of the NCAA wasn't like that before, and you can't change it in one day."
She added that the message was clear: "It was like, 'Get on the bus or go home.'"
SI spoke with more than 20 current or former NCAA employees about the troubles of the NCAA enforcement staff for a lengthy story in this week's Sports Illustrated. A portrait emerged of a department battered by turnover, afraid of lawsuits and overwhelmed by scandal. One ex-enforcement official told SI, "The time is ripe to cheat. There's no policing going on."
In many interviews with NCAA officials about enforcement, the topic quickly shifted back to the leadership of Emmert, who is known internally at the NCAA as the "King Of The Press Conference." That's not a compliment.
One of the biggest criticisms of Emmert is his desire to be in the spotlight. (Emmert declined multiple requests to speak with SI for this story. Spokesman Bob Williams says Emmert's increased public profile has been at the request of the NCAA's Executive Committee.)
Even one of Emmert's supporters could come up with few positives for One Team One Future, calling the rollout "mechanical." The NCAA employee compared it to an Apple shareholder meeting. "Some of that may have rubbed people the wrong way," the person said. "I think it reflects the approach and style that Emmert brought to the position, whether that's good or bad, it's the reality of it."
The reality is that NCAA culture needs to change, as it's entering a time of great transition. The enforcement staff is fighting the perception that it's meek, and many of its most talented investigators have left the association.
When talking to a dozen college officials to get a pulse on Emmert, many struggled to answer the question, "What has he actually accomplished so far in his tenure?" Even the harsh sanctions against Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal ($60 million fine, four-year bowl ban and the loss of 40 scholarships over four years) has painted Emmert in a bad light after he went on a television tour, which some perceived as a victory lap, to talk about the unprecedented action by the NCAA.
The NCAA has failed to pass most of the initiatives Emmert has trumpeted. Many agreed with the ideals behind Emmert's ambitious agenda, including trying to give scholarship athletes a small amount of money to cover the full cost of school, and paring down the rulebook. But the lack of results have highlighted the growing schism between haves and have nots in Division I and further polarized the athletic directors who feel largely ignored and highlighted how out-of-touch Emmert is with his constituents. There's been tremendous turnover in top-level NCAA jobs under Emmert, to the point where many administrators complain that they don't even know who to call at the NCAA anymore. And therein lies the irony of Emmert's One Team One Future attempt -- ideals like communication, collaboration and inclusion sound great, but they're missing among the membership.
"I'm really concerned," said one high-ranking college administrator. "There's a need for a healthy NCAA. It's not healthy right now."
Morale is at an all-time low among the enforcement staff as several respected veterans -- Dave Didion (Auburn), Marcus Wilson (Maryland) and Chance Miller (South Carolina) -- have left for college compliance positions since April. On Tuesday the department received another huge blow when Rachel Newman-Baker, the managing director for enforcement, development and investigators, left for a compliance job at Kentucky. Newman-Baker is the highest ranking member of the department to leave since enforcement vice president Julie Roe Lach was fired in February in the wake of missteps in the Miami investigation.
"With Rachel gone," another ex-NCAA staffer said, "there's really only two investigators (Angie Cretors and LuAnn Humphrey) left with experience in major football and basketball cases."
Last week, interim director of enforcement Jonathan Duncan told SI: "It's been a tough time for the enforcement staff."
One of the driving forces of the enforcement exodus came from seeing how Emmert's office handled the Miami debacle. The NCAA knew about the issues regarding the financial arrangement between Nevin Shapiro's lawyer and investigator Ameen Najjar for months, but Emmert's remarks to the press -- "a shocking affair" -- came off as if he'd just been informed that morning and needed to express his outrage publicly.
Many staffers felt like Lach was the scapegoat, as the 52-page external report shows she directed Najjar's request through the proper channels. Jim Isch, the No. 2 behind Emmert at the NCAA, also knew of the arrangement and offered financial support, but he faced no repercussions. No logical explanation of that disconnect was provided.
How the NCAA handled Tom Hosty didn't help either; weeks after Hosty was demoted from managing director to director of enforcement, Isch informed the staff of the demotion at a meeting and walked out as jaws dropped to the floor.
"They know if the s--- hits the fan, they're not going to be backed up by anyone," said one ex-investigator.
As the NCAA moves forward, the reality of Emmert's future is tricky. "When you get to the position Mark is in right now," said another college administrator, "it's how and when you are leaving, not if."
That's easy to say, but that pace of change in both academia and in the NCAA is unbearably slow. As one former staffer said of NCAA business: "You realize that it takes 100 internal emails for you to get the one e-mail that says nothing."
Academia is arguably worse, as the average search for a college president takes a year. There are few groups of powerful people more collectively risk averse than college presidents, who when deciding on whether to blow their nose insist on forming a sub-committee to dissect proper tissue texture. In other words, getting a group of college presidents together to make a bold move like firing Emmert is highly unlikely. Emmert could realize he's in an untenable position and jump to another job, but that isn't likely either (he reportedly makes $1.6 million per year).
It should be noted that Emmert does have supporters, particularly among Pac-12 presidents, as he came to office from Washington. He helped hire Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and counts Oregon State's Ed Ray among his closest confidants.
But elsewhere, Emmert's support is tepid at best. He proved helpless during realignment, has been overwhelmed by constant scandal and has been unable to get his reform measures through the muddled NCAA governance structure.
Even worse, public perception of the NCAA under Emmert is at an all-time low. (This stinging USA Today story that exposed Emmert's messy handling of a large-scale construction project while at UConn didn't help Emmert's reputation.) The mass exodus of talented employees speak much louder than his corporate buzzwords. And that's something that can't be changed with flashy lights or new screen savers.