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BENNER: Criticism heaped on NCAA takes toll on rank-and-file

March 23, 2013

The NCAA is often cast as a faceless, soulless, heartless organization.

Once upon a time and viewing from afar, I felt the same way.

But when you get to meet and know some of the faces, souls and hearts who inhabit the NCAA’s national headquarters in White River State Park, well, it tends to enhance your perspective.

This might surprise you, but there actually are some fine, competent, well-intentioned people at the NCAA. The reality does not square with the media-fed perception that it’s a collection of mean-spirited, unyielding goofs.

Seriously. I am not making that up.

And most go to work each day with a basic mission in mind: service to the member institutions and student-athletes.

They actually want to help those constituencies, not hurt them.

Seriously. I’m not making that up, either.

Now before you dismiss my premise as naïve and hopelessly Pollyanna-ish, I’m not suggesting the association is without blemish and that the piñata-like beating it has taken lately is totally undeserved.

The list of lightning-rod issues is long and, unfortunately, growing: the botched University of Miami investigation; the backlash to the discipline meted out to Penn State for the Jerry Sandusky scandal; the negative reaction that goes with virtually every decision regarding student-athletes (mostly, men’s basketball players) being ruled ineligible; the athletics arms race; too much “power” in the power coaches and conferences; the rampant conference realignment fed by insane media-rights agreements; “one-and-dones” who spend a few months on campus before moving on to the NBA; and the whole concept of maintaining amateurism, which critics decry as “shamateurism.“

Then there are the legal issues, in particular the potential meteorite of the so-called Ed O’Bannon lawsuit challenging the NCAA’s use of players’ images. A ruling against the NCAA could have huge ramifications.

So, yes, there are nails aplenty for those who want to hammer away at the NCAA, in particular its leadership and President Mark Emmert.

I’m merely speaking up for the rank and file.

Right now, many of those NCAA folks are working seven days a week, 16 hours a day, seeing their families only in passing and traipsing all over the country.

For them, March is madness, indeed. April, too, for it is during those two months that the NCAA clicks off more than a third of the 89 championships it stages annually. Within a few weeks, competitions adorned with the NCAA’s blue disk logo are taking place at well more than 100 locations in venues large and small, in front of a few hundred fans to more than 60,000.

But whether it’s a Division III wrestling meet or the Men’s Final Four, the goal at each is the same: to give the young men and women a first-class experience they can remember long after their playing days are over.

Of course, the event that commands everyone’s attention is the biggie, the Division I men’s basketball tournament culminating in the Final Four. That generates almost all the money that makes those other championships possible, along with a whole raft of other things that benefit both the athletic and educational experiences of nearly 400,000 student-athletes across 1,500 institutions and three divisions.

That’s where the NCAA gets on a proverbial teeter-totter, trying to maintain the balance between the cash cow and the milk it provides.

Anyway, it’s probably a good thing the NCAA’s worker bees can spend the next few weeks submerging themselves in the multiple logistical challenges and details of staging championships. I hope it will take their minds off the relentless stream of criticism. I’ve spoken with staff members who acknowledge it hasn’t been easy going to work on days when “NCAA” is a four-letter word.

I’m not suggesting you go hug an NCAA staff member today. They’re big boys and girls.

But neither do they deserve a daily mugging.

And to those who believe intercollegiate athletics would be better served if the NCAA were dissolved or control ceded to the power conferences, well, be careful what you wish for.

In the meantime, thousands of student-athletes will have the time of their competitive lives over the next weeks participating in NCAA events. A relative few of them will hoist trophies, but all will have a championship experience. It doesn’t just happen on its own, but those who make it happen won’t ask for credit. They’re just doing their jobs.•

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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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