On a college sports ship floundering on turbulent seas, NCAA president Mark Emmert was a disastrous captain.
The only distinguishing feature of the latter half of his 12-year tenure is the ability to avoid outright rebellion (although the sudden announcement of departure may be a sign of one’s coming). The only thing worse than his presidential performance is the completely deafening decision made by the NCAA Board of Directors to extend his contract last yearwhen rank and file held him in utter contempt.
If there is a current CEO who is less respectful of any organization, I don’t know who he is. Outdated NCAA policies led to a public turning point that was inevitable no matter who the president was, but boy hello Emmert played an inept character as if it were a Hollywood script.
On Tuesday night’s NCAA editionEmmett will remain in office until June 2023, unless a replacement is named before then. Regardless, he ended up as an NCAA general and will likely go back to doing what he did for most of his NCAA tenure — keeping a low profile, because he underperformed so poorly in the spotlight. It would be fitting if he made his last official appearance in Final Four in New Orleans on April 6, when circumstances collided to make him look more inept than ever.
This was Emmett’s ultimate foolishness, to announce the Men’s Basketball National Championship trophy will be presented to the Kansas City Jayhawks. This was an embarrassing flop, but the University of Kansas Jayhawks’ presence in the NCAA Tournament alone provided even more contextual humiliation. This Kansas title was emblematic of the futility of the NCAA in enforcing its own rules. The Jayhawks won it all while facing allegations of serious abuse going back to a 2017 federal investigation of corruption in college basketball — allegations that seem likely to lead to a post-season ban of a year or more, the closer the NCAA gets to completing the case.
This issue of wrongdoing owes its existence not to the investigative work of the NCAA Enforcement, but to the FBI. It’s been zigzagging through an irreparably slow process since, delayed by federal trials and the COVID-19 pandemic, but further complicated by the NCAA’s own decision to outsource complex cases to a hearing and new investigators. This outsourcing, in turn, came on the recommendation of a committee appointed by Emmert tasked with tackling a wide range of problems in college basketball.
The committee was well-meaning but fatally flawed in the classic NCAA fashion – filled with the kinds of institutions and policy holders who had little idea how to make sausage in youth basketball. As a result, they devised a “ramp” that became the Independent Accountability Review Process, which earned a stray rubber stamp from NCAA membership and then became the single worst aspect of Emmert’s astonishingly bad tenure. The IARP has wasted money and time and, as of this writing, has accomplished almost nothing while tasked with adjudicating the largest influx of major issues in NCAA history. It was an out-of-the-ordinary experience when, as one old college principal put it, “this wasn’t a time for experimentation.”
So, Kansas is winning it all and laughing all the way to Lawrence after the NCAA has given the middle finger over the past four and a half years. (up to and include Life Contract for Coach Bill Selfwhose name is mentioned in major violations.) While this is certainly a reflection of the Kansas founders’ choice to be completely reckless of their own guilt, it is also a stark reflection of many schools’ disrespect for the NCAA as a whole.
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Emmert’s early tenure as president of the NCAA was marked by his disastrous attempt to achieve cowboy justice in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal in Pennsylvania. With permission from the NCAA Board of Governors, Emmert attempted to circumvent applicable regulations and apply additional sanctions assistance to the Nittany Lions football program. While this satisfied some moral outrage, it did not fit into the NCAA’s penalty structure and had to be undone significantly.
That, combined with some really bad comments in public, led to Emmert’s regression into a shell he never left. His increasingly media appearance came with many side-steps from within the governance structure, trying to get him to speak less and others who might be more thoughtful or diplomatic to speak more. Someone with a base salary of $2.7 million a year can’t be trusted not To put his foot in his mouth.
Other self-inflicted wounds followed. Emmert’s response to concerns about gender inequality in both the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments left him upset. Appearing before Congress, agonizing to intervene as NCAA policies became obsolete in real time, it was a targeted practice for politicians. Capable and active NCAA employees continued to leave the association.
Increasingly, power in college sports has shifted from the NCAA’s office in Indianapolis to the offices of conference commissioners. The dramatically higher revenue (and expenditure) in football, the less involvement the NCAA, having long since lost control of how the sport is run, will be involved. Football continues to drive everything, including the gap between those who eventually play it and those who don’t.
In the end, Emmert’s responsibilities were reduced to being an expensive meat shield for the NCAA’s Army of Critics. He paid him a lot for a lot of scolding, including from Likes of Mike Krzyzewski in Final Four. He had to give a few speeches and hold two press conferences, the NCAA Conference and the Final Four, or else he would have gotten out of the way and remained silent.
And so the heavy lifting of trying to change college athletics fell to a transformation committee led by Conference Commissioner (Greg Sankey of the Southeast Conference) and athletic director (Julie Cromer of Ohio). They were tasked with a radical reformulation and by all accounts they took this directive very seriously. Sankey and Cromer spoke on Final Four about the possibility of recommending major substantive changes by August 1, and in recent days, they have been meeting with groups of members to provide updates.
He calls into question the timing of the “Emert Mutual Agreement” with the NCAA Board of Governors to step down. The shift committee may have indicated that it believes a change in leadership is necessary (Sankei, for example, is not a fan of Emmert). It’s clearly overdue, but a boost from powerful forces from within may be what it will take to finally end this dismal period in the NCAA leadership.
Of course, the next question is terrifying: Who the hell would want this job? Who wants to try riding a college athletics tiger at a time like this? Emmett wasn’t good at his job, but he was anyone Capable of wrapping his arms around this unbridled period of player compensation, player movement, conference realignments, and even more uncontrolled spending that could dramatically threaten Olympic sports? All that is at stake is the potential collapse of the NCAA Division I, as athletic director at Notre Dame. Jack Swarbrick assumed that Sports Illustrated last week.
This is a borderline impossible task and may require a radically different approach than whoever fills it out. You’ll see a lot of candidates already joining the college athletics machinery, but these machines are crashing all over the place. It may be time for a drastic change from the “usual suspects”.
At least, the most usual suspects are on their way out. Farewell to Mark Emmert. The misfortune of a weak leader. And good luck to the next person to take on the brutally challenging task.