Benner/Sports and NCAA and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: New NCAA chief inherits full plate and more

October 2, 2010

An open letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert:

Welcome to Indianapolis, President Emmert. Or, if I may, Mark. We’re pretty informal around here.

Today, Oct. 4, 2010, is your first day officially on the job as president of the NCAA and, I assume, you’ve been fitted for body armor. Also, I hope you have been taking baths regularly in brine and vinegar because your hide is going to have to be as thick and tough as it comes.

You arrive to not just a full plate, but a full china cabinet. Just for starters, there is conference expansion, the push for a football playoff, agents, one-and-dones in basketball, verbal commitments from eighth-graders, rule-breakers, AAU and summer ball, commercialism, amateurism, millionaire coaches, the Knight Commission and a media that refuses to stop picking at the scab they perceive to be intercollegiate athletics.

Good luck with all that, Mark.

Even academic reform, one of the NCAA’s supposed successes under the tenure of your predecessor, the late Myles Brand, is being assailed.

Have you heard of Frank Deford, Mark? He’s a former writer for Sports Illustrated and still a highly respected observer of the world of sport. Well, this is what Deford had to say about the NCAA last week on his National Public Radio commentary, with regard to academic reform.

“I don’t believe anything the NCAA tells me about the academic records of student-athletes,” Deford said. “I think there is much, much more cheating in the classroom than the NCAA knows about ... or wants to know about.

“It’s the old business of garbage in/garbage out. The various colleges—which is to say, the various athletic departments—report grades to the NCAA, which accepts them prima facie. How can the NCAA ever tell if some stooge is taking a test for an athlete, if some tutor is writing a term paper for an athlete, if some professor is dishing out passing grades to the failing athletes he cheers for?

“As Bob Knight, the retired basketball coach, says: If the NCAA had been in charge of Normandy, we would’ve attacked Greece, and given our soldiers all the wrong ammunition.”

How’s that for cynicism, Mark?

Then there’s Gary Williams. He’s a current coach, at the University of Maryland, and he’s convinced the time has come to pay those so-called “student” athletes. 

Williams says with that new $11 billion television contract for the NCAA signed last spring—just before you were hired—there is plenty of money to give to the men’s basketball (and football) players who are earning it.

“These guys don’t receive anything except room, board, books, tuition and fees, which doesn’t put any cash in their pockets,” Williams said.

Read that last sentence, Mark. So here you have a guy—a high-profile coach who has won an NCAA title—who thinks a free college education essentially has no value because it doesn’t come with a cash stipend. And a lot of media, those who shape perception about the NCAA, agree with him.

So those are just a couple of examples of what you will have to deal with. The marketing and branding guys at the association came up with a catchy tag line about how most of the 400,000 student-athletes in the NCAA’s three divisions “go pro in something other than sports,” and while that is true, a skeptical public and media will continue to see the NCAA through the lens of football and men’s basketball and focus on the excesses just as much, if not more, than the successes.

Perhaps your biggest challenge, Mark, will be to enlist your former fellow presidents and chancellors for the betterment of the enterprise. For example, instead of docking a coach $1.5 million for lying to NCAA investigators, it would be nice to see the cheaters shown immediately to the door and have contracts written to reflect the presidential commandment that, if thou cheats, thou shalt be fired. Without a going-away prize. Now.

Anyway, Mark, we look forward to having you here in Indy. There are a lot of hard-working, well-intentioned folks working for you who have the best interests of the student-athlete—emphasis on student—at heart. And if, at the end of the day, that isn’t where we are headed, then the cynics and skeptics will win the day and the debate.

One more thing: Great city. You’re going to love it.•

Bill
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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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