Benner/Sports and NCAA

BENNER: College sports, embarrassed but still enriched

October 1, 2011

Pop group R.E.M. announced its retirement recently, causing many, in tribute, to bring up one of the trio’s songs, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.”

Wonder if they’ve had additional reason to be humming that tune at NCAA headquarters on West Washington Street.

The NCAA—always an easy target—seems under attack, and threatened, as never before.

A stingingly critical 5,000-word missive in The Atlantic by noted author Taylor Branch has been the talk of the sports world. Other criticisms are easy to find—from Division I athletic directors; from the esteemed former University of North Carolina President William Friday; and in a passionate outcry delivered by the NCAA’s own president, Mark Emmert.

The recent string of headline-grabbing scandals—isolated though they may be in the overall context of the NCAA’s three divisions, 1,280 member institutions and 400,000 student-athletes—by themselves were enough to inspire the latest barrage of criticism.

Emmert, in fact, responded to those scandals, lowlighted by the booster-on-the-loose allegations at the University of Miami, by summoning 50 presidents and chancellors to Indianapolis for a “retreat” to address—quickly and affirmatively—both the perception and reality of competitive and academic integrity run amok.

Coming out of the retreat were recommendations for action with regard to increased academic benchmarks and stiffer penalties for the cheaters. There were additional calls for an increase in stipends to cover the full cost of attendance and a commitment to four-year scholarships instead of the one-year “renewables” now in place.

In an IBJ column subsequent to the retreat, I applauded those initiatives. The campus CEOs finally seemed intent to rein in the excesses—their own, and that of their brethren.

The upbeat sentiment lasted for about a month and then … wham!

Texas A&M announced it was bolting for the Southeastern Conference. Pittsburgh and Syracuse unveiled their intentions to leave the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Texas and Oklahoma courted the Pac 12, leaving their Big 12 compatriots to twist in a tornadic-like wind. Connecticut and West Virginia tried (to no avail) to make themselves available to the ACC.

Damn the traditions. Damn the rivalries. Damn the loyalties. Damn anything that closely would resemble geographic sense. And, especially, damn the student-athletes—especially those in the Olympic and non-revenue sports who would be most affected by increased travel and lost class time thanks to decisions made by those on high.

Perhaps Emmert can be forgiven for thinking he could actually create a substantive transformation of those who lead the so-called “power” conferences. After all, he still is relatively new to the job.

William Friday, on the other hand, is 91, having long ago retired as the president at North Carolina. More than 20 years ago, in the wake of the scandal that resulted in Southern Methodist University’s being given the “death penalty” that shut down its football program, Friday helped organize the Knight Commission to address the excesses taking over big-time intercollegiate athletics back then.

“Three things came out of that process in the first two years,” Friday said in a recent interview. “One was to reassert presidential authority. The second one was to set up processes to guarantee academic integrity, and third to do the same thing with fiscal integrity [and] the flow of money.”

Sound familiar?

And what progress has been made on those fronts in the intervening years? None, according to Friday, who has seen his own school, North Carolina, get outside the lines with its football program.

In fact, Friday says, “We’re a lot worse off, no question about that.”

In other words, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

By the way, there’s a parenthetical tag that concludes R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”:

(And I Feel Fine).

And shouldn’t we all feel fine? After all, the stadiums are full and big media can’t seem to throw enough money at the enterprise. If it’s the end of this world, we’ll just create a new one.•

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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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