Promises of Swift, Radical Change

NCAA president and Board of Governors had pledged to act quickly on recommendations to reform men's basketball after federal officials revealed a scheme to steer recruits to certain colleges in exchange for cash.

January 19, 2018
 
Mark Emmert

INDIANAPOLIS -- Cynicism about higher education, and athletics, runs rampant, only inflamed by the continuing federal investigation into men’s college basketball -- a sport that National Collegiate Athletic Association president Mark Emmert proclaimed must be reformed by the start of next season.

In a frank address to the thousands of NCAA delegates gathered at the association's annual convention, Emmert did not skate over one of the most significant revelations in the world of collegiate athletics last year. The Federal Bureau of Investigation unearthed an alleged scheme by coaches at some of the most prominent men's basketball programs in the country to direct recruits to certain institutions in exchange for cash. Four coaches and six others, including high-ranking Adidas executives, face federal fraud charges, among others, with hints from law enforcement officials that the corruption is more pervasive.

Emmert said NCAA critics had seized on the scandal, which he deemed “disgusting,” as a way to prove that the association had failed. Those cynics asserted that “everyone knew” about this system, Emmert said, an accusation he refuted, while pledging action to clean up men’s basketball.

“We know it’s not widespread like people assumed it was,” Emmert said. “We know what really goes on in the world, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t bad things out there that we've got to deal with. And it makes everybody in this room’s job harder. It doesn’t matter what division you’re in, what sport you’re in. When there’s things like that out there, and we don’t respond appropriately, it makes your job that much harder. We’ve got to respond to those things -- directly and forcefully. Not nibbling around the edges.”

The scandal had eclipsed the good accomplished by the NCAA and snagged all headlines, Emmert said.

Emmert referenced an NCAA-created independent commission charged with investigating college basketball, led by former U.S. secretary of state and Stanford University provost Condoleezza Rice -- another step that Emmert conceded might draw the scorn of NCAA detractors (“Oh, that’s what the NCAA does -- got a big problem, form a commission”).

The group will deliver recommendations on men’s basketball to the NCAA in April. Shortly after Emmert’s remarks wrapped up Thursday evening, the NCAA announced its leaders, the Board of Governors, had set aside $10 million in reserve cash to help carry out the commission’s suggestions. Beginning in the next fiscal year, $2.5 million will be devoted annually to reforming men’s basketball.

“It is imperative that the NCAA leadership move swiftly on the commission’s recommendations,” G. P. Peterson, chairman of the Board of Governors and president of Georgia Institute of Technology, said in a statement. “To this end, we have approved a tentative review and implementation process that will allow us to act on the recommendations of the commission in a timely fashion. We may well have some difficult decisions to make in the areas of academics, well-being and fairness and are both prepared and committed to do so.”

The board intends to approve any final changes on men’s basketball in August.

During his speech, Emmert walked a stage in front of extravagant, multicolored curtains, and flipped back and forth between touting progress and a positive long-term vision for the NCAA and acknowledging its deficiencies.

He paused periodically to bring to the stage men and women who are heading association initiatives -- among them recent graduate and former basketball player Alaina Woo, now an assistant coach at Tufts University and one of the heads of the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committees.

Emmert said that the association must acknowledge the voices of athletes, which are now being heard louder than ever before, and questioned Woo on the progress her committee has made.

Woo told the crowd that her committee has a direct line to the Board of Governors and said a “wonderful” group of athletes had talked with the NCAA leaders about key problems -- among them sexual violence among college athletes. An NCAA think tank will meet next week in Washington to discuss a possible associationwide rule for athletes who are found to have perpetrated sexual assault. The NCAA has historically skirted making a broad policy on many social issues such as this, saying it preferred to leave such matters to individual campuses.

The NCAA will also launch a new strategic planning period, a set of comprehensive goals last undertaken in 2004 -- long before the advent of social media giants, Instagram, YouTube and more, the leader of that work, Henderson State University president Glendell Jones, pointed out to the audience.

In explaining why the NCAA needed to redo the plan, Jones said the rise of these digital phenomena has affected the way society and athletes behave and react. The world faces a new set of problems now -- 14 years ago no one was heavily debating matters of diversity, or sexual harassment, he said.

“All of these things have come on the horizon and I think they’ve resulted in the NCAA being on the defensive and being very reactionary,” Jones said to the crowd. “I want to use this as a process to really propel us into the role of a leader.”

As a result of the NCAA’s last strategic plan, graduation rates among athletes soared, an association priority, Emmert stressed during his speech. The graduation rate among athletes jumped by more than 10 percentage points from 2002 to 2017 -- from 74 percent to 87 percent, according to the most recent NCAA data.

Emmert said that institutions have endured major pressures to perform well athletically and to please donors and alumni, pressures that at times incrementally started moving programs away from the values the NCAA espouses.

“We have to fight against that drift,” he said. “Because the core values of college sports are worth protecting. It’s what allows half a million students to have the experience they have.”

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