Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mark Emmert, John Feinstein, Harvey Specter, and the future of the NCAA

In a column dated February 20th, Washington Post writer John Feinstein decried the NCAA's shameful inability to police itself while fighting a losing battle against corruption in revenue-earning sports like football and men's basketball. The key points of Feinstein's criticism are well made, and they gave me pause for a moment to consider the lengths to which a wide-reaching governing body has been forced to go in order to maintain control. 
What do Harvey Specter and Julie Roe Lach have
in common? Maybe more than you think.

Feinstein called the debacle "Keystone Kops vs. Inspector Clouseau." To me, it looks a lot like the plot arc of season 2 of Suits. The frequent assaults on an organization's integrity have made it weak, and some of the people in charge of holding the line feel compelled to use under-the-table tactics to preserve what they have. Julie Roe Lach is go-getter Harvey Specter, and Mark Emmert is law-conscious head honcho Jessica Pearson.

If you're a fan of the show, think about it, and you may find the analogy not so far gone. The rising tide of illegal benefits provided by success-hungry boosters, opportunistic agents and others trying to make a buck off of collegiate athletics has backed the NCAA into a corner from which it can see little daylight.

What is upsetting is not that that one official was willing to sacrifice cash to know the truth (always a bad proposition), but rather that the choice to do so seemed like the most effective one available. We have reached a boiling point beyond which it may be impossible to realistically supervise and appropriately punish all of the schools that commit these violations.

Feinstein asks "What can be done?"

His article provides, directly and indirectly, three potential options for reeling in a system gone haywire. I’ll detail them here and provide a little of my own perspective on his suggestions:

1) Have the NCAA retake control of football conferences, hypothetically beginning with the 2014 football season. The license given to conference commissioners over the terms of the previous two NCAA presidents, Feinstein argues, have allowed control of the college football landscape to pass from its primary governing body to individual leagues. The compacting conference structures have wielded unchecked power over universities eager to find ways to pay for (and thereby continue) their non-revenue sports; however, a freeze on conference structures would give everyone a little more stability in the short term and allow administrators time to thoroughly evaluate what league they would really fit into and why. Feinstein glosses over this option because he probably does not believe it is not viable: the present structure is seems too expansive to overhaul in that way. Here's an excerpt from his column:
“If the NCAA controlled football and if there were rules in place that prevented schools from jumping conferences haphazardly, the current chaos would never have started.

A private organization has a right to make rules. If the members agree to those rules, they must follow them.

If rules existed making it impossible for any school to change conference affiliation without approval from an outside committee, the lawsuits presidents might threaten in order to jump from, say, the ACC to the Big Ten, would be meaningless.”

2) Consider the Mike Krzyzewski "have/have not" plan, where multiple organizations govern different spheres of college athletics based on whether or not the sport of note makes money (or fails to). Coach K’s idea, as quoted by Feinstein, involves “an organization that does what’s best for college football, one that does what’s best for [men’s] college basketball and one that does what’s best for non-revenue sports.” Given his experience, I tend to respect Krzyzewski’s ideas, though not every coach-recommended idea is a good one (see the recent proposal to accelerate the NBA draft deadline). However, I am curious as to whether having just two organizations, one to oversee basketball/football and one for other collegiate sports, could still be effective.

In thinking that through, I recognize Coach K’s point that “the needs of each are too different for us to keep acting like they’re the same thing;” in light of the fiasco at hand, the bar for properly overseeing football and basketball, to say nothing of 37 other NCAA sports, looks impossibly high. The goal is to be more effective in enforcement, but do you really need to dissolve the entire NCAA to do that? Maybe so—after all, today’s world is one of specialization. But couldn’t there be a revenue-earning division and a non-revenue earning division of one organization? If it were just a two-pronged operation (in terms of enforcement), different sports could have the opportunity to move between the revenue and non-revenue divisions depending on their financial viability (which we can’t truly predict at this juncture). I’m just posing the idea here.

3) Feinstein’s “First, we eliminate all the presidents” plan, whereby each sport gets its own commissioner, “someone who is of the sport and from the sport and familiar with the particular needs and nuances of [it].” Personnel-wise, this makes sense: currently, “seventeen of the 20 members of the NCAA executive council are either college presidents or chancellors,” men who Feinstein characters as “lack[ing] a sophisticated understanding of all of the forces at work in modern athletics.” That said, if “the presidents should be completely removed from the process except (perhaps) to help in fundraising at their schools,” you can see the knee-jerk backlash headline coming from a mile away: “College sports now governed by National Coalition Against Academics,” or some form of wordplay better than my own. It could potentially erode public trust in amateur athletics—yes, beyond its current strained status—and precipitate, in the worst scenario, an ill-advised Congressional intervention (heaven forbid) on behalf of the presidents.

I am not saying that changing the NCAA leadership to a more athletics-oriented set of officials is a bad thing—indeed, it may be the right thing to do. But you can’t knock out all of the presidents without some eyebrows being raised. Keep a few of them, maybe five or eight, just so that there is some semblance. A new executive council in that mold would have to withstand a fair amount of criticism in the early going, but over time it could very well prove to be the right group to legislate and supervise collegiate athletics in the 21st century.

What do you think the NCAA should do? Feel free to comment?


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