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Volume 21 No. 12
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NCAA’s Emmert: College hoops has got to change

Mark Emmert makes some forceful comments concerning the future of college basketball.
Photo by: MARC BRYAN-BROWN
Profoundly disappointed and shocked.

That’ll be NCAA President Mark Emmert’s reaction if there aren’t substantial changes made to college basketball by the start of next season.

Emmert, speaking last week at the Learfield Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, was emphatic that the NCAA’s basketball commission will come back in relatively short time — a matter of months — with changes that will lead to a revamped culture around the game.

“Not only can we make change; we have to,” Emmert said at the event in New York. “I don’t see it as a question of whether we can or how we will. It’s a matter of necessity.”

The FBI investigation into college basketball, which led to fraud and bribery charges against 10 people, including four assistant coaches, prompted Emmert’s strongest comments since the September sting. While acknowledging that skeptics exist, even within the NCAA’s ranks, the association’s president said the window to effect change is open now.

Emmert left no room for interpretation for that with some of his most forceful comments in seven-plus years on the job. In the past, the former university president has sometimes struggled to find the right tone and message. The NCAA overstepped its bounds in Penn State’s case with Jerry Sandusky. It didn’t act swiftly or aggressively enough in North Carolina’s academic fraud case.

First Look podcast, with collegiate forum discussion beginning at the 13:20 mark:

But with the basketball cheating that has stained the game and embarrassed coaches, Emmert has found a receptive and mostly unanimous audience.

“The worst possible outcome would be that, confronted with these facts, the association just moved on,” Emmert said in his annual IAF interview with SportsBusiness Journal Executive Editor Abe Madkour.

“The issues brought forward — and we’ve all heard them swirling around for years — just fuels the cynics to say, ‘This system is just not working.’ All of the talk about being student-centric doesn’t ring true when you have issues like this. … I don’t see this as just a sports issue. I see this as a fundamental issue for higher education. Can universities engage in self-regulation, which is what the NCAA is? The American people are saying, ‘I don’t know that I have confidence in that.’”

Emmert said the commission, which meets monthly and is chaired by Condoleezza Rice, is focused on five primary goals:

What is the best relationship with professional basketball?

Emmert has lobbied NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts to change the one-and-done rule to something that would permit athletes to go straight to the pros out of high school. Villanova coach Jay Wright, also speaking at IAF last week, threw his weight behind new draft eligibility rules.

“There have to be student athletes who want to be in college and want to be educated,” Wright said. “The ones that don’t, don’t put them in our system and don’t force them into our system. There’s so much out there now about student-athlete rights, and they should have rights. The problem is that there are athletes who don’t want to be students. To get a guy to a professional sport in seven months, that’s not why we’re here.”

What is the right relationship with the shoe companies that sponsor youth travel teams and events?

“The shoe companies are some of the most creative marketers in the world,” Emmert said. “I’ve got to believe they can sell shoes without bribing people.”

What role should agents play with the players?

How should the structure of summer basketball and recruiting change?

In what ways do schools and coaches hold each other accountable?

“We’ve got to work toward a system that can be more corruption-proof,” Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman said on her panel. “Cheaters will always cheat, so how the NCAA deals with the enforcement issue is important. … The elite player pathway from the youth level — it’s an unregulated area. Whether some order can be brought to that space remains to be seen. Mark has asked for a speedy set of recommendations” by April and implementation by next season.

Ackerman’s comments were part of an exchange on a panel of commissioners.

“It’s more than a one-and-done issue. That’s not the issue,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said. “It’s how we create a healthy culture. What told me that we don’t have a healthy culture is the number of quotes from people saying, ‘I’m not surprised.’ That tells you we have bystanders who don’t feel they have the ability individually to do anything about it. That culture has to change.”

Many of the college administrators said the focus needs to be on how coaches react to the notion of turning in a fellow coach who is cheating. Should changing the culture include a “See something, say something” policy, even though that has not been the case in the past?

“Do we want a federal agency to run college sports?” Emmert asked rhetorically.

“I worry about creating more rules that people won’t follow,” said Washington AD Jennifer Cohen. “It’s on all of us; we’ve contributed. But more rules? I’m not sure that’s the answer.”

Part of the commission’s challenge for making significant change is reaching a solution that satisfies everyone, which likely won’t be possible.

“I don’t know what the right changes are, but my biggest fear is that we don’t make any changes,” Penn State AD Sandy Barbour said. “You don’t want to waste a good crisis.”