Two days before the Final Four, one day after a historic Supreme Court hearing and in the middle of a gender equity snafu, NCAA president Mark Emmert was available for his normal state of the union-style gathering. This annual appearance at the Final Four has become an exercise in beating up the boss. He knows that.
But calling for Mark Emmert to be fired is about as old as calling for Mark Emmert to be fired. It’s old, passe, maybe even lazy.
“Thanks for the career advice,” Emmert said to this critic eight years ago at the Final Four in Atlanta. “Kept my job anyway.”
Eight years later, and we’re still talking about such things. Questioning the NCAA president’s job security is as worn out a hot take as exists these days. Emmert is what he has always been, a face behind a bully pulpit minus the bully part. The NCAA president has seldom had real power. He is employed at the leisure of the association’s Board of the Governors.
“Whether I’m the leader or not is not up to me. … They’re my bosses,” Emmert reminded Thursday.
So yeah, the problems these days are way bigger than Emmert and his $2.7 million salary.
“I think it’s terminal. I really do,” one prominent Power FIve administrator recently told CBS Sports, referring to the NCAA’s inability to properly oversee college sports.
And that person is not alone. Emmert’s series of missteps, misspeak and bad optics have become the signature of his tenure, now in its 11th year. Not only has Emmert kept his job, he keeps getting raises. But let’s put the blame where it should be: Emmert’s bosses.
Blame accompanied by blinders. Georgetown president Jack DeGioia — chair of the Board of Governors — gave Emmert a vote of confidence last week. What does DeGioia and the rest of Emmert’s bosses not see? They are either enablers or part of the problem. Maybe both. Let’s call them out.
Among the 25 members are six Power Five CEOs. The list includes the former U.S. Secretary of Defense. It includes Grant Hill. Yes, that Grant Hill. It also includes the former CEO of American Express.
Not all of this is on the current roster because members can only serve a maximum of two three-year terms. But the governors were in charge of the NCAA spending $200 million legal fees alone in the last 12 years. They watched head trauma be ignored until, legally, it couldn’t anymore. They watched a gender equity issue develop underneath the surface until it was exposed in the women’s tournament.
Maybe that’s because, unbelievably, the NCAA is not bound to follow Title IX, the 48-year-old federal law that aims to prevent gender discrimination.
“Whether the law applies to us or not, we need to act as if it does,” Emmert said.
Let’s back up a mere 17 months. In September 2019, Emmert characterized a California name, image and likeness bill as an “existential threat.” By December of that year, he was photographed hobnobbing with Congressmen. That was the first sign of the NCAA’s current strategy. It will need help from Congress for antitrust exemption to implement its version of NIL.
“We’re asking [Congress] for a framework within which we can do what we want to do,” Emmert said Thursday.
“Once you deal in a Congressional way, you’re going to be called back [before Congress],” that aforementioned Power Five source said. “They’re going to interfere in the future legislative pieces.”
That is a slippery slope that Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) was more than happy to grease up earlier Thursday.
“He says he wants Congress to help him. Well, we’re going to help him. We’re going to give him help. The help we’re going to give him is not to the NCAA, it’s to the athletes,” Blumenthal said.
The NCAA was seemingly backed into a corner as multiple states developed their own NIL bills. There are also multiple bills in Congress. Blumenthal and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) intend to refile their version of NIL that contains the College Athlete Bill of Rights. (The bill has to be refiled because there is a new Congress in 2021.)
“What is going on in the NCAA … is tantamount to exploitation of athletes,” Booker said.
The NCAA was exposed last year when critics say it was underinsured after canceling its 2020 NCAA Tournaments amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Athletic directors all over the country were surprised when they collected only 40 cents on the dollar of their usual tournament revenue. The broker of the policy for the NCAA said it was the largest event cancellation payout ever.
“I know there have been plenty of things that have done poorly and misses that we’ve had over the years,” Emmert said. “I’m sure happy to take my share of responsibility for that. I don’t pretend like I’m infallible.”
No, he doesn’t. But is Rome burning while the Board of Governors fiddles?
The Power Five could decide to leave the NCAA tomorrow. They are that pissed at NCAA governance and Emmert’s leadership.
There already has been a de facto separation. The NCAA doesn’t sponsor a major-college football championship. The College Football Playoff is an LLC that funds college football at the championship level. In December, the reform-minded Knight Commission recommended the NCAA govern only basketball as a major revenue-generating sport. It favored the 130 FBS teams and CFP go off on their own.
The Power Five could make a complete break and set up their own tournament if things got bad enough. It would be tough but doable.
A negative result in the NCAA v. Alston appeal currently in front of the U.S. Supreme Court could further diminish the association’s power. Part of the NCAA’s defense is that a victory for the plaintiffs would mean more lawsuits.
And Lord knows, the NCAA can’t stand anymore lawsuits. Or maybe it can. Maybe that’s what is right now, a high-powered law firm. It exists to put on one hell of a party each March and fend off the next legal action.
Meanwhile, Indianapolis celebrates this Final Four weekend as whatever the amateur ideal continues to burn.
“We are saying, in effect, the emperor has no clothes,” Blumenthal said. “This idea of amateurism is as outdated as leather helmets and shoulder pads as used to be given to athletes.”