Give NCAA President Mark Emmert credit for this much: He gets that his house is on fire.
Under the chandelier lights of a hotel on Washington, D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue, Emmert acknowledged Monday to the reform-minded Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics—and later, to reporters—that the National Collegiate Athletic Association is facing a critical moment.
“The NCAA member schools, my staff and those schools, have got to get our arms around it fast,” Emmert said at an impromptu news conference after an hour-long session with the commission. “This is a real questioning of whether or not the universities and colleges, through the association, can manage their affairs.”
Two events prompted Emmert’s remarks. First, there’s the FBI’s continuing basketball bribery investigation, which has already brought down University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Then, there’s the NCAA decision not to issue major sanctions against the University of North Carolina for academic fraud, despite a years-long pattern of sketchy classes.
That’s two scandals that the NCAA failed to spot, and one it failed to punish.
Little wonder, as Emmert relayed to the commission, that recent polling by the NCAA found the majority of Americans believe big universities put money ahead of student athletes and that both universities and the NCAA are seen as part of the problem and not the solution.
“People are saying, ‘Can you, or can you not, regulate the enterprises of your own activities?’” Emmert said.
Well, maybe they’re saying that. Or maybe they’re just looking at the NCAA’s woes and, at best, shaking their heads, not for the first time, either. The governing body of college sports has been maligned for years.
So how does the NCAA dig itself out of this hole beyond creating a commission (which, by the way, it has done)? A starting point could be to acknowledge a couple of things that get relatively short shrift in public debate.
One issue is that the perception of the NCAA differs from the reality of the NCAA.
The NCAA may seem like a powerful monolith, but it’s really just the sum of its parts, meaning American colleges and universities. It’s a member-driven group. It can only do what its members let it do.
And what do the members want? Set rhetoric aside for a moment and take a look at the numbers.
In fiscal 2015-2016, according to its federal tax return, the NCAA brought in about $971 million. The vast majority of that money came from March Madness broadcast rights, plus tickets to the basketball tournaments and other championships. The college football playoff, it is worth noting, operates outside the NCAA.
After expenses, more than half the cash the NCAA brings in is then redistributed to schools and conferences to fund athletic scholarships and run athletic programs for hundreds of thousands of students.
That’s a worthy cause, but it means the NCAA’s main role is middleman. It runs national championships—for dozens of sports, not just basketball—collects money from those championships, and hands the revenue back out. If you want a very rough, unflattering definition of the NCAA, there it is.
The other piece of the equation that doesn’t get mentioned often enough is that the NCAA operates on a model of self-governance, known in other situations as the honor system. While the NCAA has extensive rules and regulations, the schools mostly just trust each other to follow those rules.
It could even be argued the NCAA members—again, this means U.S. colleges and universities—are generally disinterested in compliance.
The NCAA employs about 500 people at its Indianapolis headquarters. The enforcement operation has about 60 staffers to police more than 1,100 schools across all divisions, from coast to coast. It’s hard to argue that enforcement is a priority when the NCAA operation is set in the context of an athletic world where, according to USA Today, the 20 highest-paid college football coaches each earn more than $4 million a year.
It all recalls a phrase from the 1980s. When his administration was negotiating nuclear weapons deals with the Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan used to say his attitude was “trust, but verify.”
Given the state of the NCAA, it seems the American public thinks there’s been a lot of trust but not much verify in college sports. To gain their confidence, that has to change.
John Affleck is the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State. The Knight Foundation provides funding both to his position and to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, though Affleck has no working ties to the commission.