SBJ/January 9 - 15, 2006/SBJ In Depth

At 100, NCAA still defining its role

The NCAA was founded to deal with football’s “flying wedge,”
depicted in the statue above at the organization’s headquarters
in Indianapolis.

“The paid coach, the gate receipts, the special training tables, the costly sweaters and extensive journeys in Pullman [railroad] cars, the recruiting from high schools, the demoralizing publicity showered on the players, the devotion of an undue proportion of time to training, the devices for putting a desirable athlete, but weak scholar, across the hurdles of the examinations — these ought to stop …

“The responsibility to bring athletics into sincere relation to the intellectual life of the college rests squarely on the shoulders of the president and faculty.”

— Findings of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which released its report on intercollegiate athletics in 1929

So, you see, we have been discussing, debating and dissecting the role of sports on the nation’s college campuses for a very long time.

Since the beginning, really.

On an October afternoon in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt summoned to the White House representatives from the three premier football-playing universities — Harvard, Yale and Princeton — to discuss the place of a brutal, but increasingly popular game that had led to 330 fatalities in 15 years.

Roosevelt was a fan of football. His son played on the freshman team at Harvard. But he wanted the rules changed to make it safer and he wanted schools to promise that those rules would be enforced.

There is debate among historians as to whether Roosevelt actually threatened to push for a ban of football on that afternoon and disagreement over whether the Ivy football triumvirate actually stuck to their pledge to clean the game up.

What we do know is that in the months that followed, with momentum to ban football building on college campuses, a group of university presidents and chancellors set in motion efforts to marry the pursuits of academics and sport.

Their first meeting, held in New York City on Dec. 9, 1905, attracted representatives of 13 schools who together called for a national convention to address the reform of college football, at which 35 institutions would unite as the Intercollegiate Athletics Association of the United States. In 1910, they would change the name to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

At the IAAUS’s first convention on Dec. 29, 1906, the 35 original members signed on to a constitution that included an explanation of purpose:

“Its object shall be the regulation and supervision of college athletics throughout the United States, in order that the athletic activities … may be maintained on an ethical plane in keeping with the dignity and high purpose of education.”

Myles Brand, the sitting NCAA president and champion of reform, nods knowingly as he listens to those words.

“I have no question that there is continuity between what I’m saying now and what came about from that first meeting,” Brand said. “But the role of the NCAA has changed. Not the mission, but the role. The role has gotten larger. I, frankly, have been trying to change the role of the NCAA.”

The early years

The thin pamphlet, worn soft from years of reference, peeks out from within a file archived at the NCAA’s Indianapolis headquarters, the record of its owner clearly marked by a hand-written notation in the upper right corner of its cover.

“Byers — Desk Copy.”

NCAA delegates wait to to get rules interpretations
during the organization’s 1997 convention.

For Walter Byers, a man married to rule and order, who as the NCAA’s first executive director decreed all desks cleared and shades drawn at end of business each day, a pamphlet such as this would serve as a Magna Carta, a document that laid out the basis for his organization’s existence.

Titled, simply, the “Sanity Code,” it established codes of conduct for intercollegiate athletics covering five areas, all of which remain relevant a half century later: amateurism, institutional responsibility, academic standards, financial aid controls and recruiting restrictions.

In a series of machinations that would foreshadow the meandering path that was ahead for the NCAA, its members adopted the premise of the Sanity Code in 1940, passed it as legislation in 1949, repealed it in 1951 and passed a softened version in 1952. What they left intact provided the basis for today’s NCAA.

While the NCAA is many things, it is first a regulatory body, an organization governed through legislation voted upon by its members, who realized after their first 35 years as an organization that they could not be trusted to police themselves.

The NCAA’s predecessor, the IAAUS, put onto paper a noble sentiment in 1906. But it was little more than sentiment. It called together schools to change the rules of football so that the game would be safer, and eventually succeeded on that front. But it also called on them to behave in ways that put athletics in the context of their universities’ larger calling.

There, it failed.

While playing football at Yale from 1902-04, All-America tackle James Hogan — now enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame — received an all-expenses-paid, two-week trip to Cuba, a cut of the proceeds from Yale sporting events and a job with a tobacco company. At least he was an undergraduate student, and a good one, serious enough about his books to go on to law school. Many of his contemporaries were ringers, brought in solely for the purpose of football and sometimes paid for their work. The creation of the NCAA, with its statement of purpose, did little to change that.

Clearly, many schools were not operating on an “ethical plane in keeping with the dignity and high purpose of education.” Yet, until the introduction of the Sanity Code, the NCAA lacked the power to do anything about it.

Joseph Crowley, interim president of the University of Nevada-Reno and a longtime NCAA insider, spent the better part of two years researching the organization’s history for a commemorative book it will release this month. He considers those 35 years to be a reflection of the attitude of its first president, Palmer Pierce, a West Point captain who believed that a shared ideal was enough to rid college sports of the two ills that they all agreed to fight, subsidization and recruiting, then more commonly called “proselytizing.”

“He saw it as a league of educated gentlemen,” said Crowley, himself a former NCAA president. “We would do the right thing. We did not want to get involved with enforcing these principals. We would leave that to the institutions and they would take care of it. [The NCAA] didn’t need a headquarters. It didn’t need a staff. It didn’t need a budget. It would meet once a year. Meanwhile, the subsidizing and proselytizing would go merrily along.”

It went merrily along without consequence until late in the 1930s, when allegations of fixed games and lavish perks for players embarrassed schools to the point that they called for action. That’s when they drafted the initial Sanity Code. It was put on hold by World War II, but when thousands of men enrolled in college on the GI Bill, most NCAA members realized that their system of home rule would only deteriorate further under that weight.

The Sanity Code did not allow for any form of athletic scholarship or grant, a ban that went too far for the land-grant schools of the South that were emerging as football powerhouses. It also offered only one penalty for violators: Expulsion from the NCAA.

For those two reasons, it was doomed from the start. But at the NCAA convention in 1952, the schools passed compromise legislation that would alter the basic purpose of the NCAA, acknowledging it not only as a body that could make rules, but one that would enforce them.

“Once they crossed that threshold,” Crowley said, “it was inevitable that that role of the NCAA would grow.”

Enforcing the rules

Myles Brand leads an NCAA looking to improve
the academic achievements of student athletes.

When David Berst took a job as an enforcement agent at the NCAA in 1972, he joined a staff of three who handled enforcement, drafted legislation and interpreted rules for schools that called with questions.

That changed within a few months when, at the urging of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, the NCAA expanded resources for enforcement exponentially, more than doubling its budget in order to hire eight full-time investigators, one for each of its regional districts.

Of all the NCAA’s functions, enforcement is the most visible, so much so that some inside the organization have argued that it should be broken off as an adjunct that carries a different name. It also is the division that has done the most to inspire the involvement of university presidents, who today dictate the direction of college sports.

“When I first joined the association, presidents and chancellors were involved in athletic programs only to the extent that they could enjoy them and reap the rewards,” said Berst, who headed enforcement for the NCAA from 1988 to ’98 and now serves as vice president of Division I. “They were pretty naive about both the ills and the harm that it could do to an institution if they were involved in scandal. The athletic department … seemed to be more of an adjunct to the institution.

“We’ve seen the swing of the pendulum to the point now where we have clearer control by presidents and chancellors. They see now how they can be embarrassed, or worse.”

Tom Jernstedt joined the NCAA staff in 1972, the same year as Berst, but in a very different role. Just as Berst was one of three staffers in enforcement and legislative services when he was hired, Jernstedt was one of three who administered the 25 championship events sanctioned by the NCAA.

He thought it would be the path to the big chair in an athletic department, a career goal Jernstedt had set a year earlier, when he left a sales job that paid $14,000, plus car, for a $6,000-a-year gig as an assistant athletic director at his alma mater, the University of Oregon.

“I’d only been east of the Mississippi one or two times in my life, but I wanted to be an AD,” said Jernstedt, now executive vice president of the NCAA. “The thinking was that if you join the NCAA you meet people from all over the country and it leads to something. I thought I’d be here 3-5 years.”

He still is there, 33 years later, serving as the No. 2 executive behind Brand, and overseeing Division I men’s basketball, which generates about 85 percent of the NCAA’s revenue, reported as $464 million in 2004, the most recent year for which filings are available. Jernstedt figures the number is closer to 98 percent, when you consider that the vast majority of NCAA sponsors sign on to a broader package only because they want to be a part of March Madness.

Just as Berst has watched the enforcement division multiply, Jernstedt has seen the NCAA’s championships side grow dramatically. He recalls vividly the day in 1983 when Jim Host, the CEO of a burgeoning sports marketing company, came to the Division I executive committee with a pitch to start a sponsorship program that would allow companies to tie into NCAA events.

Like Byers, Jernstedt was reluctant. His vision of collegiate championships was, “like Augusta: clean and pristine, with no signage.” But many of the athletic directors who then ran the executive committee were soliciting sponsors for their own programs and were ready to do it with the national events. Host made his sale.

While the NCAA likes to point to support from sponsorships as a means for schools to provide more opportunities for athletes outside of the revenue-producing sports, it’s clear that the presence of Fortune 500 companies — coupled with the announcement of multibillion-dollar TV contracts — plays into the public’s perception of college sports.

The NCAA may have started off as an organization of like-minded scholars attempting to unite study with sweat, but as it grew, its emphasis shifted to the enforcement of rules and presentation of events.

“To me, our image depends on who you ask,” Jernstedt said, “and, more importantly, it depends on when you ask them.”

On the Tuesday following the Final Four, the public face of the NCAA is one of pep bands blaring, alumni cheering and jubilant college kids cutting down nets. One shining moment. But, if on the following Friday afternoon, the NCAA announces sanctions against a program that has paid its players, rules ineligible a player who has taken cash from an agent, Monday night’s moment is sent headfirst into an ice bath.

“We’re the ones who put on this wonderful tournament that people feel very positive about,” Jernstedt said. “And we’re also the ones who come down and tell you that someone has done something that is embarrassing — and wrong.

“Those are the two ways that most people see us,” Jernstedt said. “But what is the NCAA? What do they do? I think there’s a better understanding today than there was five years or 10 years ago. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Meeting the mission

Late in 1999, shortly after the NCAA wrapped up negotiations on an 11-year, $6 billion rights deal with CBS, the organization’s chief marketer, Dennis Cryder, started getting calls about the network’s plans to promote March Madness.

“Let me tell you how we’re going to sell you,” a network executive told him, running down a list of core attributes that he thought would draw viewers and advertisers. A couple of months later, Cryder got a similar call from an ESPN executive who tossed around similar phrases, such as “competition,” “love of the game” and “fair play.”

Cryder began to contemplate the place of the NCAA on the sporting landscape.

The NCAA’s Greg Shaheen (left),
Tom Jernstedt (center) and Bob Bowlsby are
shown in February 2005 going through
a trial run of selecting the men’s
basketball tournament bracket.

“I listened to the words they were throwing out, and it wasn’t so much what I heard as what I didn’t hear that bothered me,” Cryder said. “I didn’t hear ‘higher education.’ I didn’t hear ‘learning.’ I didn’t hear a lot of the things that we thought were at the very core of intercollegiate athletics.

“We realized then that unless we defined ourselves, others would define us.”

In 2000, the NCAA began to craft that definition, starting with a focus group that would help it figure out where it stood with the general public. When they asked the group about the NCAA’s connection to higher education, the most common response was that there was none.

“That was a sobering moment,” Cryder said. “That tells you where we were in people’s minds.”

As a result, the NCAA set a course toward revamping its image, building a campaign around six attributes that it identified as core to its mission: Learning, balance, character, spirit, community and fair play.

The NCAA’s current ad campaign emphasizes its athletes’ achievements outside of sports. One that debuted during March Madness and aired frequently this football season features Roger Cox, who played basketball at Division II San Francisco State, shown working on his game in a gym, with a voice-over in which he explains his drive and dedication. “I have no doubt I can play at the highest level,” he says.

Then he reveals that he’s talking about the highest level as a jazz musician. The tag line: “There are over 360,000 NCAA student athletes, and just about all of us are going pro in something other than sports.”

That same tag runs on three other TV spots.

“We’re putting the face of the student athlete on the NCAA,” Cryder said. “We want people to see that and say, ‘Oh yeah, they go to college.’”

Of course, image is only one piece of that equation. That image, at least in the most visible of college sports, football and basketball, is born of an uncomfortable fact: That the pressure to win has for the better part of the century pushed the major programs further and further away from the NCAA’s original pledge to keep with the “dignity and high purpose of education.”

It was not enough for the NCAA to advocate reform. It had to initiate it.

In August, 2004, the NCAA’s executive committee approved a strategic plan crafted with the help of a consulting firm that surveyed a cross-section of the college sports populace — college presidents, faculty members, coaches, conference commissioners, athletes and NCAA staff — asking each of them what the NCAA stands for, what it should seek to be over the long term and how it could best get there.

The product of their work set goals related to:

The student-athlete experience;
Informed governance and decision-making;
Effective administration at the national office; and
Perceptions of the NCAA and college sports.

Objectives included improving academic success rates for athletes, getting better information into the hands of the college presidents making decisions on athletics, speeding the investigation of major infractions cases and better defining the role of the NCAA’s national office.

They hit on most of the relevant issues. But it should be noted that, among those who are supposed to benefit most from this entire process, the response heading into it was a skeptical, “I applaud the effort, but I don’t think it will do any good.”

Again, we have been discussing, debating and dissecting all this for very long time.

“One of the great national sports is beating up on the NCAA,” said Graham Spanier, president of Penn State and until recently a member of the Division I-A board of directors. “But let me point out that the NCAA is us. The NCAA is not some force operating out on the edges, lording over us. We are it.”

Focus on reform

Brand was in his third year as president of the University of Oregon and not at all in the loop of NCAA policy or politics in 1991, when the Knight Commission issued a scathing report that called for university presidents and chancellors to take control of the NCAA, which for years had been governed by influential athletic administrators.

The NCAA Presidents Commission, which was created with reform in mind in 1984 but had made little actual progress, summoned the chief executives from schools across the country to the NCAA’s annual convention, where they finally would take a stand.

Their reform package focused on three areas: time demands on athletes, cost containment and a restructuring that would put the direction of intercollegiate athletics into the hands of the presidents.

More than a decade later, that convention still is remembered for the words of Bob Bowlsby, then the athletic director at Northern Iowa, who during a failed attempt to exempt wrestling from sweeping cuts introduced an amendment with a phrase that summed up the spirit of the day.

“Mr. Chair,” Bowlsby said, “at the risk of becoming additional roadkill on the freeway of reform …”

If there was a freeway of reform, Brand was heading for the on-ramp.

“It was a watershed moment, for me,” Brand said. “The first time I felt part of the organization was in that convention. That was the only time I felt part of the process. The athletic directors were always part of the process. It was the presidents who were left out.”

Two years later, when Dick Schultz resigned as the NCAA’s executive director, the presidents looked within their own ranks for a replacement. They couldn’t find one who would take the job and settled on Cedric Dempsey, an athletic director, but one who held a Ph.D.

Dempsey served as a bridge to Brand, the first college president to serve as the NCAA’s CEO.

NCAA by the numbers

360,000 student athletes
3 divisions (I, II, III)
23 sports
88 championships (41 men’s, 44 women’s, 3 coed)
49,000 student athletes compete in NCAA championships each year.
935 million estimated viewers of NCAA championship programming in 2004-05
1,162 NCAA members (schools and conferences)
350 full-time employees at the national office in Indianapolis

Source: NCAA

“When he came in, everybody LexisNexised him and saw ‘reform’ and wondered what that would mean,” said Greg Shaheen, the NCAA’s vice president of
Division I men’s basketball and championship strategies. “To me, Myles is a unique and important visionary at a time when our business needed one. We’ve benefited from him.”

Brand empowered NCAA staff members, encouraging them to make decisions and implement strategy, rather than waiting for direction from members of committees. He says those committees work more effectively as appellate bodies, rather than decision makers.

As is frequently the case when power shifts radically, it is the athletic directors who now complain that they are left out.

It’s similar to the age-old complaint of executives at pro teams who live with the policies set by league offices.

“We are a membership-driven organization, and yet sometimes we simply put ourselves in a position, over the years, where we end up having to go back and repair bad legislation because maybe there wasn’t enough discussion or there wasn’t enough input,” said Florida State University athletic director Dave Hart, whose school recently tussled with the NCAA over the use of an American Indian mascot. “I’m not sure it’s not time to seriously assess the existing governing structure to see perhaps how we can make it better.”

Brand said he, too, wants to keep athletic directors as an integral part of the governing process. While presidents hold all the voting power in Division I by virtue of seats on its board of directors, athletic directors serve on a 49-member management council that makes recommendations to the board.

Brand also has encouraged university CEOs to include athletic directors in their cabinets, as he did when he was president at Indiana. He estimates that about one-third of presidents at Division I schools have done so.

“First of all, I want [the AD] to help inform the rest of the institution of the role of athletics, because not everyone understands it,” Brand said. “But, secondly, I want [the AD] to understand what we do here — that we are an academic institution.

“It works.”

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