Column: NCAA ain't ready for reform
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AP Sports Columnist
ATLANTA (AP) - Ignore all those headlines about botched investigations, questionable leadership, allegations of grade-changing and athletes loading up on "soft'' courses to stay eligible.
College sports are in a far, far better place because NCAA boss Mark Emmert is in charge.
If you don't buy that, just ask him.
"I know you're disappointed,'' Emmert said to one questioner on his way out of the Georgia Dome late Thursday afternoon, "but I'm still here.''
We'll explain that exchange between the NCAA president and a reporter in a moment, but first some background:
Every year at the Final Four, an hour is set aside Thursday afternoon for what's become known, informally, as the "state of the NCAA'' address. The president recaps the business of the past year, outlines rule changes or proposals set to take effect in the coming months and then fields queries from reporters.
Most years, it's the dullest hour of the week. This time, both Emmert and his questioners knew it was likely to be anything but.
For one thing, there was the lingering controversy over NCAA investigators behaving like rogue cops while looking into a scandal centered around a booster-run-amok inside the football program at the University of Miami.
For another, there was the USA Today Sports story earlier this week that concluded Emmert, while serving in administrative roles at Montana State, Connecticut and LSU, compiled "a history of dodging blame in scandals that have festered on his campuses, sometimes moving on to a more lucrative job before their full extent becomes known.''
There were other stories about possible academic irregularities bubbling up at other schools recently, so let's just say there was no shortage of ground to cover. After a 17-minute opening statement portraying himself as an agent of change - "there's always people that don't like change when it occurs,'' Emmert said in a pre-emptive strike - he got around to taking questions.
The first one was whether college presidents were too far removed from the day-to-day operations to govern - let alone reform - what's become a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.
"Presidents ultimately are responsible for that change,'' Emmert replied. "As a university president, I always recognized that the ultimate responsibility for any program on a campus lies with the presidents. If presidents aren't in charge of intercollegiate athletics, then the system's got problems.''
Let's parse that for a moment. The system definitely has problems. In fact, nearly everything about college sports - from small infractions like grade-changing to the enormous budgets now required to compete at the highest level - has been even more problematic since university presidents wrested control of the NCAA from their athletic departments nearly two decades ago with the stated mission to clean things up.
There's also Emmert's endorsement of "the-buck-stops-here'' theory, namely that whoever is at the head of an organization ultimately bears responsibility. But when the NCAA got caught trying to buy information from the attorney of Miami booster and convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro, Emmert insisted the only people at fault were a few rogue investigators who were fired or forced to resign.
In a similar vein, when a state investigation into cost overruns of a $1 billion construction project that Emmert supervised at UConn concluded he and two other officials knew about the ongoing problems and failed to disclose them, Emmert simply waved it off.
"I never saw an audit issue that was a problem at all, and we certainly wouldn't have kept it from people,'' he told USA Today, contradicting the finding of a second state investigation as well.
But back to the news conference. Thirteen of the 16 questions that followed touched on some aspect of his leadership of the NCAA, including one about whether Emmert had become a "lightning rod'' for the problems plaguing college sports. That came from one of his toughest critics, Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com, who previously had called for Emmert to be fired.
Emmert began by again stressing that he expected criticism for shaking things up when, unbidden, he slipped this into his answer: "By the way, thanks for the career advice. Kept my job anyway.''
Then, as if nothing had happened, he finished up, "So, OK, I deal with criticism.''
He went after several other questioners at different points, then tied the whole thing up with a bow as Dodd tried to ask him a final question just as Emmert was exiting the stage. That was the quote above that ended, "I'm still here.''
And so he is, making $1 million a year to boot. For the answer to why, we can't do any better than what Kutztown University professor Jason Lanter told USA Today. In addition to teaching, Lanter was past president of the Drake Group, a coalition of university professors and administrators that's produced more ideas about reforming college athletics than the NCAA ever has.
"He,'' Lanter said about Emmert, "is a product of that same system with which he is trusted with reforming.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.
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