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REFORM SCHOOL?
August 22, 2011
The NCAA has plans for a much-needed makeover—just don't expect big changes any time soon
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August 22, 2011

Reform School?

The NCAA has plans for a much-needed makeover—just don't expect big changes any time soon

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Seemingly every NCAA president has preached reform over the years, so when current honcho Mark Emmert gathered about 50 university presidents, athletic directors and conference commissioners in Indianapolis last week for what he billed as a landmark assembly, it was met with a predictable amount of eye-rolling.

This is, after all, the NCAA, where issues go from committees to subcommittees, from boards to focus groups to ... oblivion.

A historical comparison for Emmert's meeting exists: Six years ago, then NCAA president Myles Brand created a similar group, the grandiosely named Presidential Task Force on the Future of Division I Intercollegiate Athletics. Charged with charting a course for the future, that group accomplished, well, nothing of note.

The bar was set low for Emmert and his crew, and so what they came up with after two days had the look of consequential action. The group announced (and the NCAA's board of directors approved) a plan to implement a minimum Academic Progress Rate (APR) for teams to qualify for the postseason, including the men's basketball tournament and bowl games. There were also proposals to raise the minimum grade-point average for incoming recruits from 2.0 to 2.5 and to make scholarships a four-year commitment (rather than one-year renewable). On the issue of rules enforcement, Emmert's group discussed streamlining the NCAA's 434-page rule book and focusing less on nuisance violations (known as "secondary" offenses) so that resources will be better spent on catching the big cheats.

Those are good, common-sense changes that, frankly, should have been implemented long ago. (The Knight Commission has pushed for postseason eligibility to be tied to graduation rates since 2001.) But they only scratch the surface of the problem.

The NCAA faces what Jimmy Carter would have called a crisis of confidence. Frustrated by so many recent scandals (USC, North Carolina, Ohio State, etc.) and a sense that even more rule breakers are going uncaught, fans and many who work in collegiate athletics have lost faith in the NCAA's ability to govern. This crisis will not abate with higher APRs and GPAs. Fans need to believe that cheaters will be exposed and then punished severely enough to discourage others from following their path.

On this front Emmert's group took a powder. They did not address new ways for the NCAA to handle the agents and other middlemen rife in basketball and growing in numbers in football. That is a complex issue not fixable during a two-day retreat. However, addressing the problem in some concrete way—such as by closing the loophole that allowed Auburn quarterback Cam Newton to remain eligible, despite his father's having marketed him in a pay-for-play scheme—would have been welcome.

There was also very little talk about how the NCAA will deter coaches from cheating in the face of financial windfalls that dwarf the risk and shame of a scandal. The surest solution is stiffer penalties for violators, but it is not in the NCAA's nature to drop the hammer on its members. Consider: In July 2008, the Committee On Infractions (COI) asked the board of directors to endorse tougher penalties for cheaters. That board responded with no response; it never took up the issue. Asked last week to pass a relatively toothless APR policy, the board of directors did so immediately. A few months ago Emmert was queried about the languishing COI request for harsher cheating penalties—ignored for three years and counting—and he responded by saying he was determined to make "violating the rules cost more than not violating them." Yet nothing came out of last week's powwow to correct the imbalance, and so, for the time being, cheating still pays.

Emmert preached patience, saying critics will "be pleasantly surprised in the weeks and coming months" as new reforms are enacted. To be fair, his group has already accomplished more than Brand's 2005 task force, but it won't matter if the NCAA is not willing to go much further.

Two days after Emmert's gathering, Ohio State officials were in Indianapolis appearing before the COI for their football program's sins against the NCAA rule book. Ohio State may not deserve to have the book thrown at it, but until Emmert and the NCAA make that a real consequence for wrongdoing, real reform will remain elusive, and the crisis of confidence will continue.

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