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Why Does Mark Emmert Get the Blame?

Why Does Mark Emmert Get the Blame?

The public reaction to NCAA screw-ups, scandals, and unpopular rulings since Mark Emmert has taken over as president almost universally seems to be to blame Mark Emmert personally. Here is an illustrative example from SB Nation:

Mark Emmert wants the privilege of making the law. That means someone has to exercise the right to throw his incompetent ass out of office.

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Odd then that Emmert publicly admitted to the scandal, sat on the teleconference to take the heat from the media, and vowed change. If Mark Emmert personally wanted to hijack the legal process to embody NCAA rules in law, he is certainly doing a poor job of it.

Emmert also does not seem like the type of leader who draws the short stick with the media. I have never met the man, but he seems personable and likable. By all accounts he does more public appearances and interviews than past NCAA presidents. If he were cold, aloof, and holed up in his office in Indianapolis, then it would be more understandable when he is treated as the whipping boy.

Three theories then. One is that Mark Emmert has pulled back the curtain on the NCAA and the NCAA presidency just enough to tantalize everyone, but not all the way. That frustrates and confuses people as much as it educates them. The second is that the NCAA is just generally unpopular and Emmert is a more public representative of the NCAA than past presidents, so he gets more of the blame than his predecessors.

The third theory is that it Emmert just happens to be NCAA president at a terrible time to be NCAA president. About once a decade, some bomb goes off with the NCAA. It started with the Sanity Code and the Sinful Seven, moved on to the NCAA takeover of women’s athletics, then SMU and the Board of Regents case, the Jerry Tarkanian saga, followed by the issues of the last five years or so. Throw in a faster news cycle and more coverage of college athletics and it does not matter who is in charge, they become more of a target.

Is Emmert Actually to Blame?

The alternative view, that no, Mark Emmert is doing something substantially different, does not hold water. Especially when you compare Emmert’s tenure to that of his predecessor, the late Myles Brand.

When faced with a crisis in intercollegiate athletics, Myles Brand formed a blue ribbon task force to study issues like academic reform and recruiting. When faced with a crisis in intercollegiate athletics, Mark Emmert did the same. Myles Brand pushed for the creation of the Academic Progress Rate and increased initial eligibility standards twice. Under Mark Emmert the NCAA strengthened the APR and upped initial eligibility standards again.

Mark Emmert is often portrayed as too idealistic and out of touch, but here is a quote from Myles Brand in 2004 in response to recruiting scandals at Colorado and Miami:

“I think we need to change the entitlement culture on campuses as well as change the behavior,” Brand said. “We can’t legislate morality, but we can change behavior.”

Here is Mark Emmert in 2011 after the Cam Newton investigation as well as the UConn and Tennessee major infractions cases (and while the NCAA was investigating Miami again):

“We cannot have coaches, administrators, parents or student-athletes sitting out there deciding: ‘Is this worth the risk? If I conduct myself in this fashion and I get caught, it’s still worth the risk,'” Emmert said. “We don’t want those kinds of cost-benefit analyses going on.”

If anything, Emmert’s comment seems like the more realistic, “brass tacks” of the two.

The responsibility of the NCAA president for what happened in the Miami investigation is comparable to the responsibility of the athletic director when a coach commits a major violation. The executive in charge demands results, and the people tasked with getting those results cut corners. Reasonable people can disagree on whether those leaders should be fired, get a second chance, or have the opportunity to explain what they did to try and stop something from happening.

But the idea that Mark Emmert is doing something fundamentally different than his predecessor or someone else who would be NCAA president right now does not stand up to the evidence. After Walter Byers, the pattern of how the NCAA president is supposed to act is pretty clear. Even Cedric Dempsey, who would now likely never be considered for NCAA president, did the same things as Emmert and Brand, with an enforcement crackdown (Dempsey’s was on gambling) and taking on a Sisyphean task (fighting the arms race).

Who Else?

The other omission when Emmert’s personal responsibility for the current state of the NCAA is brought up is a realistic candidate who would run the association in a significantly different manner. The NCAA president is selected by a group of college presidents, so no surprise that the last two have come from those ranks.

When Mark Emmert was selected as NCAA President, these were the other two finalists:

  • Lt. Gen. Franklin “Buster” Hagenbeck, superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
  • Beth Brooke, a global vice chairman with accounting giant Ernst & Young

This represents about as much “outside of the box” thinking as you are likely to see when selecting an NCAA president in this era. Even if we throw in interim president Jim Isch, who was not a finalist for the permanent job, the list looks like this:

  • Longtime NCAA employee
  • University president
  • University president with military background
  • Corporate leader from accounting industry, former student-athlete

There are no Jay Bilases, Joe Noceras, or Taylor Branches on that list. There is not even a Larry Scott. Nor an athletic director or commissioner. No business leaders from innovative industries like technology. Corporate governance and the academy rule the day. If the NCAA were picking a new president right now, the wish list probably looks something like this:

  • Arne Duncan
  • University President (Gordon Gee is a good representative)
  • Jim Delany or Mike Slive

Aside from Walter Byers, who ruled the NCAA in a much different way in a much different era, it is difficult, if not impossible, to explain how any of the people listed here run the NCAA substantially different than Mark Emmert. Or how an NCAA run by any of these people would have been certain or even more likely to prevent what happened in the Miami investigation from happening.

What Does All This Mean?

With all that wind-up, what is the pitch? Here are a few takeaways about Mark Emmert, the leadership of the NCAA, and the current trials the association is going through:

  1. This was probably inevitable. Between the structure of the NCAA, the current state of college athletics, and outside pressures involved, a scandal like this was probably overdue. It is a dubious claim at best to suggest that any person who would reasonably have had a shot to be president of the NCAA could have stopped this. Mark Emmert just happened to be the guy in charge when it happened.
  2. Be careful what you wish for. People who expect the next NCAA president to be substantially different from the current one or the one before him will be disappointed. Every argument, good or bad, that this should be the final nail in the coffin of certain NCAA rules will be met with arguments, good and bad, that the NCAA needs to double down on academics and amateurism. And given the pool of likely candidates, the odds are much higher that the next NCAA president supports the latter rather than the former.
  3. This is an NCAA problem. A lot of problems in college athletics get attributed to the NCAA, but really have their genesis somewhere else. This is not one of those problems. The powers the NCAA has, the rules it is trying to enforce, the fact that is a voluntary, membership association are all choices the NCAA has made and have to live with. And they are all choices that made something like this more likely to happen.

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