John Clay: Recent actions show NCAA is running scared

NCAA President Mark Emmert has shown in his organization's decisions on Penn State recently and its distancing from EA Sports that the NCAA isn't the powerful behemoth it once was.
NCAA President Mark Emmert has shown in his organization's decisions on Penn State recently and its distancing from EA Sports that the NCAA isn't the powerful behemoth it once was. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mark Emmert might not have an athletic bone in the body beneath his well-coiffed head, but the NCAA president is honing the technique of a football defensive back.

He's in full backpedal.

If we didn't know that before — and we did — we know that for certain now, at least as of Tuesday, when the NCAA announced that it has re-examined its harsh penalties and decided to cut Penn State's football program a little slack.

The Nittany Lions will have five more scholarships available in 2014 than under the original scorched-earth restrictions announced in July 2012. Penn State can return to a full 25-scholarship signing class in 2015 and a full 85-scholarship roster in 2016.

The NCAA also will consider lifting Penn State's remaining three-year bowl ban.

If out of the blue the NCAA came to its senses, admitting that it overstepped its bounds, that would be one thing. Instead, here's the real thing: The NCAA is running scared.

For starters, there is an Oct. 29 hearing scheduled in the lawsuit that the family of the late Penn State coach Joe Paterno has filed against the NCAA.

Is it coincidence that the powers that be in Indianapolis have decided to soften their hard-line stance against the university where Paterno made his legendary name?

Recent precedent exists. As defendants in a suit by a group led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon over using players' likenesses as commercial properties in video games and television broadcasts, the NCAA announced in July that it wouldn't renew its contract with EA Sports, maker of the NCAA Football 2014 video game.

How convenient.

Emmert's troubles aren't limited to the courtroom, either. On Monday, the president told a meeting of more than 100 Division I faculty reps that "a lot of change" is coming to the way the NCAA does business in the future.

"I think the board anticipates a lot of change," Emmert told the group, according to wire services. "They're going into their October and January meetings expecting to look at a whole different governance model for Division I."

No conference or school is breaking away from the NCAA. It would make little financial sense for a group of conferences to start all over — from scratch — with a new governing body that would require massive start-up costs for operations that the NCAA already performs.

There is little doubt, however, that the major conferences want to govern themselves without interference from smaller schools that have smaller budgets and thus different issues.

Nearly all the commissioners of the so-called Power 5 (SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12) made that clear at their respective football media days this summer.

It's also clear that Emmert occupies a position of rare weakness. It's difficult to recall an NCAA president this unpopular or ineffective, and with good reason.

The Johnny Football farce was one thing. After a summer during which Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was alleged to have received money for signing autographs — a violation of a dumb rule, by the way — the NCAA suspended the Heisman Trophy winner for half a game. Down in College Station, they're still laughing.

But what about poor Miami? The NCAA's investigation into that school's athletic program has turned the Hurricanes into sympathetic figures.

First, Emmert had to admit that the NCAA's investigative unit acted improperly in obtaining information. And now, more than three years after Yahoo Sports' report alleging misconduct, and eight months after the NCAA's "improper conduct," Miami continues to wait on an NCAA verdict.

Meanwhile, Tuesday's peace offering toward Penn State shows that Emmert knows that the court of public opinion has already reached its verdict.