SAN ANTONIO — In his first major address as president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Mark Emmert deflected criticisms that the sports governing body mishandled a recent rash of high-profile pay-for-play cases in football.
“So let me be really clear about some things that I think require some clarification,” Emmert said Thursday in a 35-minute keynote speech at this week’s NCAA convention here. “First of all, it’s wrong for parents to sell the athletic services of their student-athletes to a university, and we need to make sure that we have rules to stop that problem. And today we don’t. We have to fix that.”
In this remark, Emmert was referring to one case in particular. Last month, it was determined that the father of Cam Newton, Auburn University's quarterback and the Heisman Trophy winner, had broken NCAA rules by actively trying to shop his son around to institutions, including Mississippi State University, for payment. Later on, determining that Newton and Auburn had no knowledge of this activity, the NCAA ruled Newton eligible to play in the Southeastern Conference championship game and the Bowl Championship Series national title game, both of which Auburn went on to win. (Newton announced Thursday he will leave college early to enter the National Football League draft.)
Emmert also addressed the practice of professional sports agents covertly paying college athletes. This practice, for example, led to Reggie Bush returning his 2005 Heisman Trophy last year and the NCAA vacating a national title he helped the University of Southern California win as its star running back.
“Student-athletes trading their standing as star student-athletes for money or benefits is not acceptable, and we need to address it and make sure it doesn’t happen,” Emmert said. “Student-athletes are students. They’re not professionals. And we’re not going to pay them. And we’re not going to allow other people to pay them to play.”
With this, Emmert appeared to be answering critics who have questioned the NCAA's recent punishment of athletes who have accepted money and other improper benefits. The NCAA came under fire last month for allowing Terrelle Pryor, the Ohio State University quarterback, and four of his teammates to play in the Sugar Bowl despite having been found to have violated rules by selling their conference championship rings and other mementos and accepting discounted tattoos. Pryor and the other rule-breaking athletes contributed significantly to Ohio State’s win in the bowl. Instead of missing the bowl, they will begin to serve their five-game suspension next season — assuming they choose not to leave college for the NFL.
Emmert stressed that the NCAA needs to clarify its “principles” and how they are represented in its rules “so that everyone knows them and they don’t wind up second-guessing when we make such decisions,” including those in the Newton, Bush and Pryor cases. To do so, he noted, he is readying legislative proposals to address issues such as “third-party influences in recruiting” and will present them to the governing bodies of all three NCAA divisions at their April meetings.
“We have to find a way to manage that problem clearly and unequivocally so that people know where we stand and what we’ll tolerate and what we won’t,” Emmert said.
Speaking to reporters after his keynote address, Emmert said he felt the need to talk about these issues directly because he has heard many critics say they are unsure where the NCAA stands on them.
For instance, regarding the Newton case, he said that many have mistakenly gotten the impression that the NCAA does not find anything wrong with a father attempting to solicit money from an institution for his son’s play. Such practices are not “O.K.,” Emmert said, but he noted that the NCAA does not yet have “a rule which makes that clear.”
“Behaviors that undermine the collegiate model, wherever they occur, are a threat to those basic values, and we can’t tolerate them,” Emmert said. “If we believe in those values … we need to be ready to defend them. And if we don’t, then we have to be ready to suffer the criticism that comes from not doing so.”
Division I Legislative Update
After Emmert’s speech, the Division I Legislative Council revealed how it voted on the more than 125 proposals it considered at this year's convention, the most controversial of which dealt with recruiting practices, programs for academically deficient athletes, and the commercial use of athletes' likenesses.
The council voted down a proposal that would have barred institutions from making verbal offers of athletic scholarships to high school students in all sports before the July 1 following their junior year. In recent years, some coaches of high-profile sports teams have made verbal scholarship offers to potential recruits as early as the eighth grade.
“There was a feeling that there’s some merit to the proposal, but the concern is, how is that enforceable?” said Shane Lyons, chair of the council and associate commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. “You don’t want to endorse legislation that you can’t enforce. Those concerns have merit to them.”
The council also voted down a proposal that would have required institutions to send academically deficient men’s basketball players to summer school prior to their first semester to “acclimate” them to college life. Lyons explained that the council was “not against the academic side” of the proposal, but expressed concerns that it gave players “too much access” to members of the coaching staff and might lead to excessive practice and training time.
Still, Steve Mallonee, NCAA Division I governance liaison, noted that the proposal could be saved from ultimate defeat Saturday by the Division I Board of Directors, given the “significant amount of time and effort” that went into the planning of the summer school proposal and the Board of Directors' continuing concern about the poor academic performance of basketball players.
In another major move, the council deferred a decision on a controversial proposal that would have loosened the rules on how companies can use the “likenesses” of athletes in advertisements. Lyons said the council had concerns about how the rule change could be used to “exploit” athletes. The proposal will be sent to the NCAA membership for a “comment period” and then will be reconsidered at governance meetings in April.
In an academic matter, the council voted down a proposal that would have paved the way for athletes to take online classes. This is the second NCAA convention in a row in which a proposal of this sort has been rejected. Current rules do not allow athletes to take online courses to meet their minimum continuing eligibility requirements. Critics argue that this limits athletes from doing something that their non-athlete peers can freely do.
Mallonee, however, noted that the council still has concerns that some athletes may take advantage of the online offerings and not enroll in any in-person classes. He added that the council would prefer that the rules be clarified in such a way as to restrict abuse.