BENNER: Balancing academics, big business is part of NCAA job

May 1, 2010

It’s been quite an April at the NCAA headquarters in White River State Park.

First, there was general agreement that the recent Men’s Final Four in its hometown was one of the best in history. Butler University’s run captivated the nation, television ratings were the highest in years, student-athletes from Butler and Duke University competed in a national championship game decided in the final second, and large crowds flocked to ancillary events.

Then, after a couple of weeks of angst, the NCAA unveiled its new tournament television deal, enriching the coffers to the tune of $14 billion over 11 years through a new contract with CBS and Turner Broadcasting. The deal relies on modest (and manageable) growth from 65 to 68 teams rather than a major expansion of the tournament that some feared would wreck it.

Finally, on April 27, the organization unveiled its fifth president and the successor to the late Myles Brand. He’s another academician, Dr. Mark Emmert, currently president of the University of Washington.

So, hey, everyone at the NCAA can take the rest of spring and summer off.

It’s interesting to note that among Emmert’s previous duties was a tour of duty on the NCAA Presidential Task Force on the Future of Intercollegiate Athletics and its Fiscal Responsibility Subcommittee.

Some would term “fiscal responsibility” an oxymoron in a landscape in which, routinely, Division I football and basketball coaches are the highest-paid public employees in their states and the intercollegiate athletics arms race continues virtually unabated in spite of the economic challenges of the times.

I have a simple explanation for that, which I’ve cited in this space before: We like our beer and circus, and we especially like it when it’s a winning circus.

As an aside, I’m always amused by media who go the high-and-mighty route and assail the escalating costs of Division I athletics.

Funny thing, too. A few years back, the NCAA tried to cost-contain by unilaterally restricting salaries for assistant coaches. It was promptly sued. And lost.

Anyway, the task force was convened by Brand in 2005 and was typical of the philosopher’s unceasing attempts to bring circumspection and contemplation to the many forces that seem to be pulling the top levels of the NCAA in different directions.

Brand was masterful at engaging and debating those who are convinced that higher academia and athletics—in particular, men’s basketball and football—are incompatible. Emmert, so new at this writing that he’s barely unwrapped, is certain to develop his own style behind what is essentially a bully pulpit, but with a background at Washington and, before that, Louisiana State University (where he hired Nick Saban, who is now coach at national champion the University of Alabama), he’s well familiar with the debate.

Emmert has been categorized by some as a surprise choice. Perhaps. At the very least, the NCAA and its search firm did an excellent job keeping the hunt out of the public forum. I found the biggest revelation to be that Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh was reportedly a finalist. No offense to the senator, but I’m glad they didn’t go the politician route.

What shouldn’t be a surprise is that Emmert does come from the highest level of academics. In that regard, he is both highly respected and sought after, having spurned previous offers from the University of Wisconsin, Vanderbilt University and the University of North Carolina to remain at his alma mater, Washington, where he’s been since 2004.

Emmert, who takes office in the fall, let it be known that he will embrace and advance the academic reforms initiated by Brand. We’re only beginning to see the effects of those reforms, especially in terms of the penalties attached to insufficient academic progress, and the more teeth that can be put into the bite, the better.

Of course, Emmert also will continue to emphasize the mantra that the NCAA is “400,000 athletes, most of whom go pro in something other than sports.”

As well he should. After all, it’s true.

But so is the fact that we like our beer and circus and seem to be willing to pay the market rate for it. Welcome to the tasks of managing those competing interests, Dr. Emmert.•


Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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