WASHINGTON, D.C. — The American public is losing confidence in the governance of collegiate athletics, NCAA president Mark Emmert said Monday, creating a significant problem for his organization.
Emmert cited data collected by the NCAA showing that 79 percent of people polled said big schools put money ahead of student-athletes, 69 percent considered those universities more of a problem than the solution, and 51 percent said the NCAA is part of the problem.
Such polls are conducted quarterly by the association, according to the NCAA, but the latest information reflects growing public negativity after the uncovering by the FBI of alleged widespread criminal activity in college basketball.
Ten people, including four assistant coaches at Power 5 schools, were arrested on Sept. 26 and charged with fraud and corruption for their role in attempting to use illegal payments, according to federal investigators, to steer NBA-bound prospects toward sports agents, financial advisers and apparel companies.
Emmert, speaking Monday at the fall meeting of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said the revelations create doubt around two key notions at the heart of the NCAA mission.
“What kind of business are we in?” he asked, “and how do we govern?
“The NCAA members, my staff and those schools have got to get our arms around it fast,” Emmert said. “I don’t think this is some little blip that’s going to go away over time. This is a real question of whether or not the universities and colleges, through the association, can manage their affairs.
“And I don’t think anybody should take it lightly. I’m sure not.”
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, co-chair of the Knight Commission, said the “legitimacy, integrity and even the relevancy” of the NCAA is stake.
“If you’re losing in the court of public opinion,” Duncan said, “the bubble is going to burst at some point.”
Through the creation of the Commission on College Basketball, directed by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and on which Emmert sits, the sport must undergo a major shift over the next year, Emmert said.
“I believe strongly today that we cannot go into the next basketball season without seeing fundamental change in the way college basketball is operating,” Emmert said. “The public doesn’t have sufficient confidence in any of us. I’ll take that on myself, too, in terms of our ability to solve these issues.”
Emmert said he hears questions often. Where is the investigation headed? How many schools will it involve?
He said he doesn’t know the answers. But the eventual size of the scandal matters little, Emmert said.
“It’s disgusting enough as it is,” he said. “And we ought to recognize that we own that. That’s part of us. When we see a coach, an assistant coach, making $200,000-$300,000 per year, taking a $10,000 bribe to throw some kid under the bus by steering him and his family to an irreputable financial adviser, you’ve got to be just sick to your stomach.”
The news in September was “shattering” to NCAA staffers, Emmert said, “in terms of the confidence we have in the some of the core assumptions around intercollegiate athletics.”
“Yeah, of course, there’s always been rumors flying around about this or that,” he said, “but there’s never been this kind of absolute demonstration — again assuming the allegations are accurate — that this kind of egregious behavior is going on.”
Emmert said he’s confident that the NCAA governance model will survive, in part because no better alternative exists. If university leaders dissolved the NCAA, they would need another organization to direct college sports.
“Do we create a federal ministry of sport and let the federal government run it?” Emmert said. “They’re doing a fine job with things.”
The United States could opt for a system similar to what’s used in other parts of the world, separating sport from education.
“Curiously, when I travel around the world,” Emmert said, “they all want to emulate our model, because they hate their model. And they all think that having education and athletics linked together is part of the secret sauce of America.
“Having said that, we’ve got to find a way to avoid having to careen from crisis to crisis.”
Regarding the current crisis, immediate consequences are unlikely to include NCAA-imposed penalties for the programs mired in scandal, Emmert said.
Of the federal probe, conducted by the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Emmert said, “that’s their business, not ours.”
The NCAA won’t conduct its own investigations until the feds are finished, he said, so as not to accidentally complicate the government’s work. But new proposals regarding shoe companies, agents, advisers and the NBA will be addressed by Rice’s commission.
Emmert would like to eliminate the “one-and-done” rule that allows elite basketball players to spend less than a year on campus before leaving for the NBA.
“I don’t think there’s any compelling reason why someone should be forced to go to college who doesn’t want to go to college,” he said. “I think that makes no bloody sense. Why would anyone do that? If someone wants to become a professional athlete, they shouldn’t have to go to college to do that.”
Even that suggestion from Emmert, ultimately determined by the NBA Players Association and NBA owners, met resistance Monday from Knight Commission panelist David Robinson. Robinson, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame selected to serve on the Commission on College Basketball, spoke passionately about the need for young athletes to spend time on college campuses.
“I think the NCAA has a great opportunity,” Robinson said. “We should be doing a better job of presenting these kids with the opportunity to come to college.
“The NCAA should be that organization that says, ‘We’re your lifelong friend,'” Robinson said. “‘You come here and we will change your view of the world.’ Both parties are better if they come to college, even if it’s just for a year or two.”