College athletics administrators are fond of saying that their sports teams, while relatively unimportant in the greater mission of a university, are often the front porch to that structure.
In the same way, the enforcement function of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. is the window to that governing body, at least in a lot of fans’ eyes.
So while NCAA president Mark Emmert might point to some headway in streamlining the NCAA administration, its manual and making improvements to the academic threshold for athletes in his 2 1/2-year tenure, what really gets people to talking is how the NCAA’s enforcement process deals with the membership.
And these days, they’re not saying very nice things about enforcement or Emmert, the Fife High and University of Washington graduate and ex-UW president — including that he’d be doing everybody a favor by stepping down.
Simply put, Emmert’s regime has seen a continuing series of NCAA enforcement misadventures.
It’s a fair point that most of these, if not all, are taking place somewhere beneath Emmert’s office, without his knowledge. It’s also worth speculating that at most enterprises, the CEO of a company responsible for such controversies would be long gone by now.
The latest involves a tainted investigation at the University of Miami, where booster Nevin Shapiro allegedly lavished all sorts of improper benefits on Miami football players. If the story is as portrayed by Yahoo! Sports, which broke it, it would rank among the most egregious extra-benefits cases in NCAA history.
Frustrated by the inability to subpoena witnesses — that’s no doubt a recurring subtext in NCAA investigations — the NCAA enforcement officer heading the case arranged with the attorney for Shapiro a scheme by which she would ask deposed witnesses in a Shapiro bankruptcy proceeding questions fed by the NCAA, for payment. It was a case in which the enforcement officer ran amok, essentially disregarding a directive by NCAA legal staff not to proceed with the idea. Julie Roe Lach, highly respected NCAA vice president of enforcement and the investigator’s superior, lost her job over the incident.
When the indiscretion was revealed, Emmert rightly commissioned a third-party firm to investigate. Among its conclusions in the report issued earlier this week was: “For a host of reasons, the (arrangement) was unquestionably a bad idea for the NCAA. The decision to forge ahead with the proposal in the face of significant concerns reflected both a lapse of judgment and an insufficient regard for the NCAA’s reputation and its credibility.”
Meanwhile, here’s Miami, which has been self-penalizing, hoping to mitigate the weight of what were certain NCAA penalties. So how is the school supposed to feel now? It should come as no surprise that Donna Shalala, the president, lashed out at the NCAA this week, calling for a halt to the investigation. As SportsIllustrated.com’s Stewart Mandel wrote, spot-on, “If this were a criminal case, the judge would declare a mistrial.”
About that NCAA credibility the external report wrote about: Make no mistake, it has eroded badly on Emmert’s watch.
— A Los Angeles judge, ruling that former USC assistant coach Todd McNair’s defamation suit against the NCAA should be allowed to proceed, wrote that the NCAA’s actions against McNair in the Bush case were “over the top,” and “tend to show ill will or hatred against McNair.”
— Cam Newton was allowed to play in the Auburn-Oregon national-title game two years ago despite his father’s pay-for-play overtures to “sell” Newton’s services. The NCAA closed that loophole a year later by defining family members as agents.
— Shabazz Muhammad, the UCLA freshman basketball player, was allowed onto the court last fall after an NCAA investigation into possible improper benefits crumbled. That came about when the boyfriend of an NCAA investigator was overheard (by an attorney, no less) on an airline flight telling a seat-mate that his girlfriend was leading the probe and Muhammad wasn’t going to be eligible.
Then there was Emmert’s dramatic action against Penn State last summer in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child-molesting scandal. As repugnant as the case was, I thought there was an element of opportunism and grandstanding in Emmert’s unprecedented strike against PSU, which circumvented NCAA process.
Lately, Emmert is taking pretty much an unmitigated bashing in the national press. Jay Bilas, the ESPN analyst and a practicing attorney, said,”I’ve never heard a leader who’s been on the job as long as Mark Emmert who has talked about ‘On my watch’ as much as he does. It begs the question: What are you watching? I think the right thing would be for him to step down, but I’m not holding my breath.”
Dana O’Neil of ESPN.com, referring to Emmert’s glib persona, called him “the king of the news conference.”
Mandel, while calling for an outside entity to replace what seems to be a broken enforcement division, wrote, “Granted, enforcement is just one small division of a much larger enterprise, but besides running the NCAA basketball tournament, it’s easily the organization’s most visible function. And right now, it’s a joke.”
Finally, Mike Lopresti, the USA Today columnist: “What happens when a leader has lost his credibility? The day must come when he faces the reality that he can no longer rule. Mark Emmert is about there.”
The external review of the Miami case exonerated Emmert, saying he wasn’t aware of the details, and it praised him for his reaction to the misdoing. And its conclusion had an ironic twist when it weighed in on what it viewed as a generally earnest and well-meaning enforcement division: “We have every reason to believe, however, that this series of missteps is not typical of the enforcement staff’s operations.”
Unfortunately, the evidence has been arguing otherwise. Mark Emmert needs to get it fixed or his tenure as NCAA president is going to be a short and undistinguished one.