Posted by Matt Norlander
Holding the office of President, NCAA: equal parts leadership and defensiveness. Leadership to everyone in your 400-some-odd-person outfit, centered in Indianapolis, as well as leadership to the hundreds of member institutions; defensive to anyone outside that cocoon who dare question the way your association operates and conducts its often-ambiguous business.
While a well-paying gig, being the president of premier American college athletics isn’t an enviable one. Mark Emmert isn’t even a full year into his tenure as Grand Poobah of the NCAA; after his appearance on PBS’ “Frontline” Tuesday night, he’s certainly off on the wrong foot. The former LSU chancellor and University of Washington president has hardly written his legacy at this level, and while he’s seemed like the right man for the job to this point, it’s clear he’s not the savviest when getting asked questions that deserve and should be asked.
I do give credit to Emmert in accommodating himself for interview, but he would’ve been better off giving PBS the hand and bypassing this sit-down altogether if he had any notion he would act like he did.
In the piece, which I urge you to watch here, Emmert came off as many things, none of them flattering. He was elitist, unwilling to answer a number of Lowell Bergmann’s questions, often patronizing the journalist while trying to shake off the mild interrogation. I felt like I was watching a politician on trial. Not a good sign. The president of the NCAA acted as though he was accosted, and it made him look worse than any overarching commentary from the piece could’ve possibly achieved. In a word: unlikeable. One of the topics: Bergmann merely wanted information, perhaps even a quick discussion, about Emmert’s salary.
“We don’t discuss our salaries,” Emmert said, despite the fact the NCAA is a public, non-profit institution. Why hide the number? What good does this do you to be mysterious?
Bergmann also asked legitimate questions about the NCAA’s moneys and why it chooses to not pay its players, despite the 14-years 10.8-billion dollar contract it has with CBS and Turner. That contract, according to Emmert, pays for about 90 percent of NCAA-sanctioned tournament events at all levels.
This pay-the-players debate isn’t fresh, but it’s not stale, either. And with the Final Four coming up, Emmert due to make his state-of-the-union address in Houston this weekend, it’s certainly a relevant question to ask him, as the NCAA’s never made this much money off its dynamic, D-I men’s basketball tournament.
“I can’t say it often enough, obviously, that student-athletes are students. They are not employees,” Emmert said.
Even if that attitude is not Emmert’s nature, and I suspect it’s not, the video is the damning evidence of a leader who doesn’t care to identify with the people or make any actions to give transparency to how his business works. That’s bad, and he probably knows it. In fact, Tuesday morning brought an article from USA Today wherein Emmert said he wasn’t completely opposed to the idea of compensate student-athletes in some way.
The “Frontline” piece was recorded well before the USA Today article ran. Emmert and his team clearly knew what was coming and have shifted course a bit, which is enlightening.
“I feel like there’s a lot of exploitation going on,” Joakim Noah said on PBS. Noah as an interview subject wasn’t the most appropriate choice, as he’s the rarer breed of college athlete with wealthy parents who could afford to send their son or daughter to college without a scholarship. Noah’s social and professional status gave his interview a dichotomy; he was more outspoken than most, but lacked the true perspective most other student-athletes, current or former, could’ve added. Bergmann did not that most student-athletes were too scared to speak out against the NCAA.
“The university did a lot for me … but at the same time I have teammates who came from all around the country and couldn’t pay for their family members to go watch this game,” Noah said. “I mean, we’re playing in the Final Four. The school can’t pay for it? Why not?”
There's more. Emmert dodged questions — thanks to the always-reliable, “ongoing legal matter” mattress to fall back on — about the current lawsuit Ed O’Bannon is spearheading against the NCAA. O’Bannon helped lead UCLA to a national title in 1995 and doesn’t believe the NCAA has a right to profit off his likeness in video games or UCLA-related entertainment after his graduation. (And it’s not.)
Emmert hasn’t done irreparable damage to his reputation, but he did let us in on who he is as a leader last night. Miles Brand was Emmert’s predecessor. The man who stood up to Bob Knight and fired the Hall of Fame coach from Indiana at the beginning of the last decade went on to be an NCAA president nearly everyone had respect for. He emphasized the importance of athletics. Brand died from cancer last year, and his presence still hovers over the NCAA.
Emmert now has to form his own identity and legacy atop the NCAA. It's not an easy job, but it doesn't have to be a thankless one, either. The NCAA is one of the tallest lightning rods in sports journalism. If the NCAA wants to improve its image, it starts with Emmert — immediately.
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