President Mark Emmert has summarized the need for the retreat as follows: “The integrity of collegiate athletics is seriously challenged today by rapidly growing pressures coming from many directions. We have reached a point where incremental change is not sufficient to meet these challenges.”
President Emmert must tirelessly speak and flog the idea of the crisis and and focus the diffuse and often misconceived media pressure into a viable and meaningful agenda of action. The Strategic Retreat on August 9 and 10 brings together all of the major presidential actors in the NCAA governance structure and pries open a window of opportunity to push and motivate the Presidents for significant change. Emmert needs to address five major groups: the Presidents, the Commissioners, the athletic directors, the coaches, and the student athletes. The media need to be addressed, but in their own way, they are both hopeless but central to entire enterprise of change. The Presidents and Commissioners are the key actors at the strategic retreat this August 9 and 10.
Presidents—They are the critical actors here. With them reform will succeed; if they are divided or half-hearted, it will fail. This is why Emmert must test out their willingness to act. All of them have seen their honorable compatriots raked over the coals to defend disgraced coaches or behavior that humiliates the university and its ideals. Even beholden to boosters, the Presidents know that a new generation of givers are less interested in athletics and more interested in academics and the academic reputation. The irony is that many got into the business of athletics to raise their academic reputation.
Even more heartening the SEC presidents have lead the country over the last decade in their zeal for increasing the academic profile of students and have set aside a portion of their TV money to invest in athletic support.They can align with the Big 10 and ACC to lead the charge. I think Emmert can win them over. The key will be their willingness to hang with each other against the combined lures of more money and the outrage of boosters who have made the system what it is. They also need to hold together and address the tensions among the haves, barely haves and have nots that sinks so much good legislation. Even a place like Connecticut with a new reform minded President or Rutgers with its see no evil president will go along. To the extent Emmert can link the reforms to raise academic standards, get higher minority graduation rates and protect universities’ reputation and from scandal, he can build this coalition. To the extent that the reforms cost money, the mid major Presidents who do no have money and hemorrhage money on their sports will balk at efforts. Emmert will need money and a willingness for the NCAA to set dual standards if this will work. This brings in the commissioners.
Commissioners—If he gets the Presidents, he can get the Commissioners. In some conferences the Presidents have vested so much power in the Commissioners and trust them, that getting the Commissioners is critical. The two smartest and most powerful Bill Delany of the Big 10 and Mike Slive of the SEC are staunch supporters of the reform. They know the costs to their franchises and both are firmly committed to the whole array of NCAA sports and know the money comes from football but the scandals are sullying the rest. They also live at the legal edge of the tangles with the BCS. Beebe of the Big 12 has been too busy holding his conference together and now is a wholly owned subsidiary of Texas so they will go where Texas goes. The mid major commissioners are the biggest problems. Their schools are in trouble financially; they cannot afford to pay cost of attendance to student athletes; they cannot afford the higher level of academic support needed; and they have no TV deals to bail them out. One of the key decisions the NCAA will have to make and the Commissioners will be critical will be to separate and create different award levels for the haves, barely haves and have nots.
Commissioners understand the issues better than the athletic directors and with the BCS have the power to destroy the NCAA by virtue of pulling out. The most valued commodity TV football remains a conference prerogative and regardless of the frantic drum beat of the media, little will happen about college football unless the major commissioners come together. Interestingly they may be more important than the Presidents but most of the commissioners now are far more aligned with their Presidents for whom they run TV stations and offset deficits than the athletic directors. So getting the commissioners matters as much for the Presidents.
Athletic Directors—The momentum for change will not come from athletic directors who are hemmed in the obsessions to win, raise money and prevent anyone else from gaining a competitive advantage. Many of the have not directors don’t want things to change because they benefit from the corruption and economic inequality. Athletic directors are too imbedded in their own job security issues and the demand to win and placate boosters and super star coaches that they will not have the unity or the vision to lead the fight to change. As a force for change the athletic directors are paralyzed by the need to make money and win at all costs. They are often eclipsed by their own coaches and often go down with the coaches they succor and protect.
Coaches—Emmert has worked with the top tiers of coaches from the beginning of his administration. He has hired and managed top flight coaches—he broke the million dollar barrier by hiring Nick Saban at USC. He has hired and fired and knows their world well. He has cultivated them and has a level of trust and respect from the top tiers. More important, the top tier now knows they are not immune given the fate of Tressel at Ohio State or Pearl at Tennessee or the USC impact. Now with Shiva option as USC and the destruction of Tressel at Ohio State and destruction of Bruce Pearl at Tennessee and possible pillorying of Jim Calhoun, then has weapon to wield. Coaches now know no one except Calipari is invulnerable to NCAA or Presidential response. Emmert has worked hard, and circumstances have come around so that the coaches just want clear and consistent rules and to eliminate many low return rules that generate violations they can barely control like rethinking agents or phone calls.
Student athletes—The student athletes have their own organization inside the NCAA and it inhabited by the best and most thoughtful of the student athletes. They are committed and intelligent. They serve on NCAA cabinets and often contribute well and thoughtfully to deliberations. But like the rest they are riven by their very different levels of schools and the irony is that you never see basketball, football or hockey players as the student athlete
representatives. They don’t have the time and as the most professional obsessed, the interest. If the NCAA can address the cost of attendance issues and the level of academic support issues, a lot can be done and will win their support. The need to rethink agents is also tied to students because they need good advice for post career moves and while it impacts a trace element of them, the rest feel tarred by the shenanigans of the few and they know that if done right early agent contact can help and support the student athletes. I think the student athletes can be brought along more by the content of the reforms, than the process per se. They know that if the cost of attendance issues and the agent and phone issues can be addressed a huge array of the petty corruption that weaves through the fabric of teams dominated by low social economic status kids can be minimized and everyone would benefit from that.
The Media—Emmert was partially chosen for his ability to communicate and work with the media. This task is impossible. Too many reporters and TV commentator are wedded to a narrative where they pitch themselves as protectors of the student athlete—actually about 500 of 400,000 who might go pro—and assault what they regard as unfair recompense or opaque and crazy enforcement procedures. The best Emmert and the NCAA can hope for is to build and keep their legitimacy among their membership and students; the media will do what the media does and search for scandals and cover them with glee. Emmert will continue to try and reach out like the day long workshop on enforcement, but expect no real help or fairness here. Too many reporters are making careers out of portraying the NCAA as Darth Vader without understanding the difference between infractions or reinstatement. Emmert has and will continue to make efforts here and the messaging is critical; but nothing will be done here for long.
The NCAA and Mark Emmert have a remarkable window of opportunity to change. The window is created by the membership’s own travails as well as the pressures that are breaking the system apart in football and basketball. Emmert has seized upon the moment and is generating the conditions of focused crisis, attractor solutions and coalition building that something good might come out of it.
Good luck to them.