Mark Emmert, former president of the University of Washington, didn't get to be the $1.7 million-per-year head of the NCAA by lacking diplomatic skills. And they were on full display this week before a U.S. Senate committee looking into some of the more controversial issues in college athletics, which the NCAA "governs."
As some senators skeptically questioned Emmert and voiced their concerns about academic fraud, limited athletics scholarships, the handling of sexual assault accusations against athletes and the big money in college sports, Emmert agreed time and again. He even promised to take the committee's concerns back to the associaton and to push for reform.
Sorry, but the NCAA has been so lax, so inept in reining in wretched excess in the multibillion-dollar world of college sports that it is difficult to take Emmert seriously. Indeed, his organization has been under fire from many fronts, and justifiably so. Scandals have been too numerous and punishments too light. Curiosity on the part of the NCAA as to plumbing the origins of those scandals has been timid.
"I think," Emmert said, "this hearing is a useful cattle prod that we know the world is watching."
What? And just why did this "governing body" need a cattle prod to become interested in what it's supposed to do? The answer is that there have been so many problems that Congress has gotten interested, and that's not good news for an organization that is protecting the financial interests of its members, first and foremost.
Friay's prediction comes true
It's hard not to draw a contrast, a sharp one, between the smooth-talking Emmert and his constant agreement with the criticisms voiced by senators with the plain-spoken warnings, many warnings over many years, by the late William Friday, 30-year president of the University of North Carolina system and co-founder of the Knight Commission on college sports. Friday said time and again that the huge money in supposedly amateur sports, including the millions of dollars showered on coaches and the lucrative contracts between apparel companies like Nike and universities were part of a formula that one day would lead to scandal.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the respected West Virginia Democrat, was skeptical as to whether the hearings would make much of a difference and ventured that perhaps Congress should hold hearings with the presidents of NCAA Division I universities taking questions.
He is absolutely right. The presidents asserted their voices in the NCAA years ago following some scandals, but money appears to rule the roost now.
Not all well-served
Emmert says athletes are served "very, very well for the most part." But the ongoing revelations of academic shenanigans at UNC Chapel Hill would seem to contradict that, and UNC-CH was supposed to be a shining star in terms of maintaining academic integrity while participating in "big time" sports.
Among the issues that need action: establishing multi-year scholarships for athletes, not one-year renewable deals that give all advantage to coaches and schools; uniform and stronger procedures for handling sexual assault charges against athletes, which at some schools are dealt with, of all things, by athletic departments; ensuring that athletes meet academic requirements that demonstrate they're getting a real education, not the "paper" one some UNC-CH football and basketball players say they received.
Emmert may say he agrees with many of these things, but it's difficult, after years of inadequate oversight, to believe that an organization that watches out for the huge financial interests of large universities in sports, universities that invest millions in stadium palaces and indulge the whims of big boosters, can really pull the reins. Or that it wants to do so.
Congress should take a stronger hand where one is lacking. And Emmert better prepare for legal challenges based on academic inadequacy and a move on the part of some to unionize college sports in order to give athletes a share of the proceeds they generate.
Regulation, integrity, and perhaps law are preferable to a "cattle prod."