In a deeply divided nation, NCAA President Mark Emmert said Monday, most Americans can agree on one thing: Major college sports is broken, and the people in charge might not be the right ones to fix it.
A recent NCAA-commissioned poll, Emmert said, found widespread distrust in the NCAA and its schools, with 79 percent of Americans agreeing with the statement that major colleges put money ahead of the interests of their athletes.
“I can’t think of anything right now that 79 percent of Americans would agree on, but they agreed on that,” Emmert said. More than half of Americans agreed the NCAA was part of the problem, not a solution, Emmert said, and nearly 70 percent felt that way about schools.
“Those are numbers that should cause us a lot of anxiety,” Emmert told the members of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an advocacy group that examines major college sports.
In one of his first public appearances since the arrests of 10 men — including four assistant coaches and an Adidas executive — as part of an ongoing FBI investigation into the shadow economy surrounding major college basketball, Emmert re-stated Monday what he said in a news release earlier this month: College basketball is in need of significant change. Determining the specifics of that change, Emmert said, is up to a committee, led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, that the NCAA formed in response to the FBI investigation.
“We can not go into the next basketball season without seeing fundamental change with the way college basketball is operating,” Emmert said. “We need to act. We need to demonstrate that we are, in fact, capable of resolving these issues.”
The coaches arrested face charges of taking bribes to steer college players to preferred financial advisers and agents. The Adidas executive is charged with arranging bribes, with the assistance of other coaches, to direct high school recruits to Adidas-sponsored schools. When they announced the charges in late September, prosecutors emphasized that more arrests could come.
“I don’t know anything about the investigation that you don’t know,” Emmert said. “Whether it’s the tip of the iceberg or it’s the whole iceberg doesn’t really matter. It’s disgusting as it is, and we’ve got to recognize that we own that.”
Emmert seemed most supportive of some kind of change that would end the practice of players leaving after their freshman year to play in the NBA. High school players projected as likely “one-and-dones” — able to leap to the NBA after just one season in college — are more likely to find their services at the center of backroom deals between coaches, agents, and shoe company executives.
“Only in America do we force someone to go to a university in order to pursue a professional sports career,” he said. “Nobody else does that. Nobody else would even think that’s rational.”
Before the NBA instituted an age limit of 19 in 2006, teenagers could go straight from high school into the NBA’s draft. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said he’s interested in changing the rule, and potentially raising the age limit to 20, while the NCAA could impose its own rule requiring basketball players to stay a minimum of two years.
Other areas that Rice’s commission will examine, Emmert said, include the relationships between schools and apparel companies, and the relationships between schools and the independent basketball leagues, some sponsored by apparel companies, that long have been suspected of complicity in backroom deals to send star teenagers to preferred colleges and agents.
Emmert touched briefly on the NCAA Committee on Infractions’ recent decision to spare the University of North Carolina for any significant punishment for running academically deficient “paper courses” for nearly two decades taken by thousands of students, many of them athletes. Emmert implied support for the decision — which found the classes weren’t an unfair benefit for athletes because regular students could take them as well — while noting he was aware the ruling was another public relations hit for the NCAA.
“We can all agree or disagree on whether the Committee on Infractions made the right choice … a very small portion of Americans believe that that was the right decision,” Emmert said.
Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Hall of Fame NBA player David Robinson were among the Knight Commission members in attendance Monday. In an interesting exchange, Robinson expressed support for one potential change that would be highly controversial at some schools: allowing college players to earn money through endorsements and sponsorship deals.
The bribes an Adidas executive is accused of arranging to ensure star high school players landed at Adidas-sponsored schools, some have argued, are only considered illicit because of NCAA rules.
“I would argue that Johnny Manziel, his greatest earning potential was in college, when he was ‘Johnny Football,’ and we took away his ability to capitalize on ‘Johnny Football,’” said Robinson, who is serving on Rice’s commission. “I know you’ve made comments in the past about these ‘bad actors’ [in college sports] … I would argue that there aren’t as many bad actors; I think it’s just not being handled correctly.”
Emmert began to answer when, in a moment of convenient technological difficulties, his microphone shut off.
“Well, I think I’m done,” Emmert said. “I hear you loud and clear.”