As established in previous posts, big-time college athletics has devolved into corruption. With billions of dollars at stake, it’s unsurprising to see avarice rear its head and get the better of honesty and principle. Charged with policing this lawless landscape in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Emanating from a series of meetings between President Teddy Roosevelt and several university presidents out of safety concerns in the rough and tumble world of college football, since 1910 the NCAA has served at the behest of its members to ensure the well-being of the student-athletes and the games they play. By 1929, the games were already so corrupted by money and scholarship violations that the Carnegie Foundation issued a call for reform. In 80 plus years, the situation has only worsened.
Many fans claim the NCAA operates with bias, especially when a penalty against their team is perceived to be greater than that of another. I don’t see evidence for that. What is obvious is the impotence of the NCAA to truly clean up the corruption inherent in the system. Until serious reform is initiated by the university presidents, who are the ultimate “power” in the system, little will change. That will entail backing away from two great temptations, however: power and money.
There is a model for such reform. Baseball experienced the same type of corruption as college sports during the same era. It was a product of loosely understood regulations and weakness in enforcement. The owners were depending on one of their own to police themselves (sadly that has returned to baseball under Bud Selig). The result was the appointment of Judge “Kennesaw Mountain” Landis as an independent commissioner. Judge Landis went immediately to work, banning the “Black Sox” members involved in throwing the 1919 World Series and generally cleaning out the gamblers and other corrupting influences in the sport.
What college football needs today is a similar figure. All too often, the NCAA’s enforcement resembles Barney Fife. They talk a good measure about serious enforcement, but when push comes to shove, they’re fumbling in their shirt pocket of the single bullet supplied to them by the presidents. The college sports landscape isn’t Mayberry. It’s more like Al Capone’s Chicago. To combat all that threatens the integrity of college athletics, the presidents need to find an Eliot Ness who is an “Untouchable” when it comes to being influenced by outside interests.
Currently, the president of the NCAA is Mark Emmert, a former university president like those who served before him. While his past experience might give him insight into the needs of the universities, those relationships inevitably compromise him. Right now, Emmert is being asked to preside over an investigation into Ohio State, whose president, Gordon Gee, Emmert has cited as a “mentor.” The infractions committee, who considers the evidence brought to it and recommends penalties, is an entirely volunteer body made up of former administrators and judges. The first act of reform from the presidents should be the appointment of an independent “commissioner” who has the free reign to redesign the infractions process to make it more potent.
The new college sports “czar” should start by simplifying the NCAA manual. Currently, it makes the IRS code look like a children’s pop-up book. Emmert himself cited “loopholes” in NCAA policy that prohibited them from taking common sense approaches with Cam Newton and Ohio State’s 5 players in the Sugar Bowl. Any administrator will agree that the best rules are the simplest. The more complex the policy manual, the more room for ambiguity and “end arounds” in order to achieve a desired end. Today, every school has a massive compliance department whose sole job is to interpret NCAA guidelines and monitor the program’s adherence. That bureaucratic network opens up a chasm of opportunity for wrongdoing, both intentional and unintentional. Coaches and athletic administrators, even those who are honestly trying to “do it the right way” are in an almost impossible situation trying to adhere to the complex NCAA policies.
By the same token, the NCAA policies themselves are often “straining at gnats only to swallow camels.” With the aforementioned cumbersome policy manual and 495 staff on hand, the NCAA has all too often gotten caught up investigating minor issues while major infraction went unnoticed. It’s no coincidence that the NCAA has had to depend on the media to do much of its investigative work. While the NCAA is mired in determining whether Colorado football player/Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom’s amateur status was compromised through his income as a skier, USC football is awash with agents on campus soliciting the services of future NFL prospects. If not for Yahoo! Sports, USC might never have been discovered. If the Lexington Herald Leader had not uncovered the Emery Air Freight scandal at Kentucky, it’s doubtful the NCAA would have ever found out. In other words, under the current system, only the totally brazen and stupid offenders get caught, just like in Barney Fife’s Mayberry where only Otis the drunk ends up in jail, letting himself in the cell.
In the NCAA’s defense, they have no subpoena power. Not being an attorney, I don’t know how they can combat that issue, if at all. But then again, the media doesn’t rely on subpoenas to get its information. This would indicate somewhat of a divide between the NCAA and its constituents when so many are obviously unwilling to honestly deal with the organization.
What is certain, however, is the need for the university presidents to act swiftly and strongly. They would send a strong message that they are serious about the integrity of their universities and their academic mission by appointing an independent commissioner to police athletics. Instead of depending on an incestuous network of peers that has proven impotent over 80 years, it’s well past time for the presidents to step back and allow an independent party to address the ills that plague college sports.