The NCAA's real problem? Lack of leadership, starting with Mark Emmert

Monday April 7th, 2014

NCAA president Mark Emmert (far left) delivered a typically uninspiring message to the media Sunday.
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

ARLINGTON, Texas -- With his organization besieged by litigation, threatened by a unionization effort and mired in inertia, NCAA president Mark Emmert addressed the media at the Final Four on Sunday. At the NCAA's latest crossroads -- isn't it always at a crossroads? -- the best thing that the organization could muster was a public relations misdirection. And an old one at that.

For years, the NCAA president has taken questions from the assembled media at the Final Four. Last year, Emmert infamously filibustered for more than 20 minutes in what appeared to be an attempt to avoid questions.

So after another year of no change, more outrage and looming issues, the NCAA decided to deflect attention and trotted out five different leaders to sit beside Emmert and take bullets for him. The quick takeaway from the media briefing was Emmert dismissing the unionization effort as "grossly inappropriate" and "completely ridiculous."

BRIAN HAMILTON: Emmert says proposed union is "grossly inappropriate solution"

But on the macro level, the NCAA used its signature media opportunity to rationalize the organization's incompetence as the collective effort of a large organization, rather than just ineptitude from the home office in Indianapolis.

In what amounts to a state of the union address for Emmert, he sat with five colleagues -- Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and four NCAA executives -- to remind everyone of just how little power he has. The main NCAA talking point revolved around it being a member-driven organization with 460,000 student-athletes and 1,100 schools, which is why there's little tangible change. Emmert pointed directly at Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlby to answer a question about the NCAA's eroding power and myriad issues. It may have been Emmert's most decisive action of the day.

The whole misdirection charade underscored why the organization can't get anything done in the first place. There were varying voices not in concert, and perhaps the most telling part was that Bowlsby stuck around to answer every tough question while Emmert's phalanx of handlers ushered him away. If Emmert is ever going to gain back any measure of public acceptance after his early public missteps and the NCAA's enforcement nightmares, he should start by standing in and taking tough questions. When asked earlier about his perception as an ineffective leader, Emmert avoided that one, too.

"I don't care about what the perception is," he said.

The NCAA trotted out the same stunt in San Diego at its convention in January. After Emmert's countless public missteps, the organization surrounded him with Division II and Division III leaders in an attempt to take the focus off of Emmert. And perhaps the most hilarious sight on Sunday morning was the NCAA public relations staffers incessantly refreshing Twitter to see if their ploy worked. Well, it didn't. Emmert began his tenure with big promises of change, and nearly four years in we've hit the point where the NCAA is closing in on legislative decisions that will allow it to make decisions easier. Follow that? It's essentially the old NCAA model of forming a sub-committee to select a committee for an issue that will be dead by the time they decide who can sit around and discuss it.

The drumbeat for seismic change in the NCAA has never been louder. But the key difference in the potential for change is that there's a legislative action that could start it. History has taught us that the NCAA only changes when it's forced to. The Ed O'Bannon lawsuit against is expected to go to trial on June 9. The move by Northwestern football players to unionize is still a long way from reality, but the movement should be recognized at the very least as a symptom of the NCAA's problems.

Emmert essentially dismissed the union on Sunday. "It would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics," he said. "There are some people that think that would be fine. I don't think that represents the views of anybody up here right now."

Long after Emmert had left, Bowlsby had even more pointed words about a potential unionized or professional model. "We will forever have lost our way if we let ourselves go down the path of making this a professional undertaking," he said.

For NCAA schools and officials, the hypocrisy of their tax-exempt status and billion-dollar NCAA tournament contract are getting harder to defend. Bowlsby made his comments in the bowels of a $1 billion stadium, a beacon of American gluttony, where nearly 80,000 crammed in to "watch" the Final Four games on Saturday night. Binoculars were for sale, and a majority of the fans at AT&T Stadium were so far from the court that they stared at the video board.

On Monday, the championship game features a program that was suspended from last year's NCAA tournament for academic issues (UConn) and a coach (John Calipari) who has seen two of his Final Four trips vacated at Memphis and Massachusetts because of NCAA violations. (Calipari is quick to mention when these are brought up that he was never directly implicated in either case.) While the NCAA clings to its amateur ideals, those programs and coaches who push NCAA rules tend to be rewarded.

"It is discouraging," said Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch. "I've known basketball coaches well over the years. I knew Digger Phelps at Notre Dame and I knew Skip Prosser. The most discouraging thing for them was if they feel like they're playing in the lines and others weren't."

In the end on Sunday, much of Bowlsby's comments ended up being more pointed and relevant than Emmert's. Specifically, Bowlsby took to task the NBA and NFL for relying on the collegiate model as their minor leagues.

"I really think the NFL and NBA have been irresponsible in not providing other legitimate opportunities for kids that really don't want to go to college," Bowlsby said. "I think that's really where the rubber hits the road. There ought to be some other feeder system than the one that kids get forced into as a result of the profile of our programs."

Bowlsby has long been viewed by athletic directors and administrators as a strong candidate to become the next NCAA president. And his frankness and accountability certainly offered more than Emmert and the NCAA's misdirection ploy.

What the NCAA offered on Sunday was a microcosm of exactly why it gets nothing done -- too many voices, no leadership and little substance. If change is coming, it's looking more and more like outside influences will prompt it instead of internal action.

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