Feckless, arrogant, self-aggrandizing, inept — if you needed just one episode to illustrate everything wrong about Mark Emmert’s tenure as NCAA boss, he just handed it over, tied up with a bow.
No matter how Emmert and his lawyers try to spin it, the settlement announced Friday in the Penn State case was another big blow. Gone are the last of the sanctions levied against the school and coach Joe Paterno in a 2012 consent decree. Back are Paterno’s wins and maybe now his statue, too, small consolation though they may be.
But most important, gone are any lingering doubts about the motives and methods behind the organization’s ham-handed rush to judgment in the wake of the 2011 indictment of retired assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on child sexual-abuse charges. Faced with a mid-February deadline to defend those actions in a real court, the NCAA threw up its hands and basically said “never mind.”
Ever the contrarian, Emmert took the opposite tack. During a break at the organization’s meetings, he said the settlement was not an acknowledgement of overreach, but instead a compassionate move so that $60 million in fines the school agreed to pay as part of the consent decree would finally be freed up to help victims of sexual abuse.
“Those dollars have been sitting there idly and that was something we all found very objectionable,” he said.
Who thought you’d ever see the words “sacrifice” and “Emmert” in the same sentence? Not me.
Yet that kind of tortured logic from him is nothing new. When the NCAA got caught cynically and repeatedly violating its own rules while investigating the University of Miami a few years back, he gave this self-serving answer to a question about whether such tactics damaged the organization’s credibility.
“The damage is, first of all, for those people who were already skeptical or cynics, this feeds into their cynicism. For those of us who have great confidence in all the people around this building, it’s painful to have to deal with an issue that fails to live up to our standards and expectations. I think that’s the challenge for all of us that work here.”
Unfortunately, that “challenge” proved too high a bar yet again when a slam-dunk opportunity to make himself look strong crossed Emmert’s desk in the form of the Penn State scandal. Determining the punishment for covering up a crime was always a matter for the courts, not the NCAA. And while the parallels aren’t exact, we can guess now how a court would have viewed the NCAA’s decision to pile on in the case.
We also know how most of Emmert’s previous stabs at reforming the problems he should have been doing something about — Google “Ohio State and coach Jim Tressel” or “Auburn and quarterback Cam Newton” or “Miami and agent Nevin Shapiro” — turned out. And just like those, this one was slipshod.
The NCAA never conducted an investigation of its own, relying solely on the Freeh Report. Then it added a dose of feigned outrage, strong-armed the few holdouts on the executive committee, and — “voila! — presented a still-shaking Penn State administration with an offer it couldn’t refuse: Sign the consent decree, onerous as it was, or the death penalty (ask SMU how that worked out) is on the table.
Some three years later, we know how that turned out, too. Paterno’s lifetime of distinguished service to his school and his sport were tarnished forever. A very good public university is struggling to slip a bad label, and the community in once-Happy Valley is divided still. Two classes or more of student-athletes (the NCAA’s favorite term) endured bowl bans and weakened squads through no fault of their own.
The NCAA didn’t set those events in motion, but it did everything in its power — and more — to extend them.
If there’s any consolation, what goes around will come around. The NCAA still faces a lawsuit from the Paterno family and chances are good they won’t settle for anything less than an actual apology. That, too, would be welcome. But whether it’s forthcoming or not barely matters.
The NCAA is on the wrong kind of roll, less relevant with each passing day. Increasingly, it’s being hemmed in by court decisions and the threat of those student-athletes organizing to claw back some of the gigantic sums they generate for the organization and its highly paid higher-ups. The power conferences and TV networks, too, are very publicly discussing why they need a middleman like the NCAA, especially when it’s doing such a poor job of keeping the cast in line.
The NCAA’s mounting problems, like the Penn State settlement, might just be a matter of timing. It could be that an organization created to push a big lie — that big-money college sports is just an amateur enterprise — has outlived its usefulness in this era of full disclosure.
Then again, it might not be a coincidence, either, the NCAA is sliding down that hill at breakneck speed with Emmert manning the controls.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at http://twitter.com/JimLitke
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