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A Sorry but Salvageable State

January 13, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS --  President Mark Emmert offered more of the same to the National Collegiate Athletic Association's members in his annual "State of the Association" speech here Thursday at the organization's convention. In it, he made the point that college sports official have got to be tired of hearing: things are bad, and we need to fix them.

Of course, they are, and they do.

"This has been, by any measure, an extraordinary year," Emmert said. "It was a year which, I think in very fundamental ways, shaped a lot of people's opinions, whether it was reinforcing or disproving their views about intercollegiate athletics in pretty profound ways."

Everyone in the room undoubtedly knew what Emmert was talking about, but they got to hear the list of perceptions one more time: University presidents and administrators only care about money. Athletes are nothing but fund-raising tools for their universities. Institution leaders are powerless and/or refuse to hold athletes to academic standards. All anyone cares about is winning, everybody cheats, students are not prepared for nor are they interested in education -- and they don't get one.

In short: "There's no ethics and there's no integrity in intercollegiate sport, and the system's broken."

"But here's some really bad news: there's some truth in those criticisms," Emmert went on, urging the room to acknowledge the reality within those overgeneralizations, not hide from them. "If we don't deal with those, then we'll let those storylines define us." (The good stories, like athletes graduating at record rates, don't get as much play, he said.)

Emmert certainly hasn't been sitting on the sidelines, but the reform measures that he (and others) has been pushing have put him at odds with hundreds of colleges.

The retreat of more than 50 university presidents that he called in August produced rules changes that were put into effect faster than anyone would have ever thought possible -- in two months, to be precise: pretty impressive for an organization that is widely recognized to move at glacial speed. The action was hailed by Emmert, Division I leaders and even, here on Wednesday, by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

But hundreds of colleges requested overrides of the measures that allowed for longer, more substantial athletic scholarships -- and now they could be repealed at the Division I Board of Directors meeting here Saturday. And while there's been no substantial formal opposition to the legislation that raised academic standards, some college officials are worried that the rules were put into place too quickly, are unfair to minority students and low-resource institutions, and that they don't address one of the most troubling charges the NCAA faces, which Emmert himself wants to remedy: athletes not getting academic experiences worthy of college degrees.

Talking to reporters after his speech Thursday, Emmert joked that "too much speed" is the best criticism he's gotten. "There's no doubt that we're moving faster ... and that's intentional," he said, arguing that the general agreement across all three divisions is that the most recent reforms are on the right track. "People are ready for some pretty consequential change."

Emmert, who has insisted that the two scholarship proposals can remain on the books in some form that will address the needs and concerns of all parties, told reporters after the speech that the working group that developed the legislation will present a revised version of one -- which allows for $2,000 more per athlete in scholarship aid -- to the board Saturday. For the other, which permits multiyear athletics scholarships, the working group will recommend that the board keep it as-is. If the board does nothing, an override vote of all Division I institutions will proceed; a five-eighths majority vote would eliminate the rule.

Those measures represent the first steps past the "fork in the road" at which faculty athletics representatives, NCAA officials, college athletics staff and athletes currently stand, Emmert believes. Regardless of whether those two proposals survive the board meeting, going forward, the NCAA must find a way to "fix" the intercollegiate athletics model -- and that doesn't mean professionalizing sports, but adjusting it to actually function in the 21st century, an era in which athletes put an unprecedented 40 to 50 hours a week into their sport (yet the scholarship model is 40 years old), television contracts and conference realignments are out of control, and the 24-hour news cycle makes for endless public scrutiny.

Whatever form that model takes, Emmert said, it must reflect one idea: that the players are students who happen to be athletes, and that all NCAA members act with integrity.

"Let the world know which fork we have chosen in that road," Emmert implored, "and by the time we get together next year, we have a very different storyline."

 

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