NCAA negotiating its own survival?

September, 17, 2013
9/17/13
11:30
AM ET

Hey, everyone! You know what we can all agree on? I do! We can all agree that the NCAA is bad. Bad, bad, bad. How bad is up to you, of course. The gamut typically runs anywhere from "outdated and slightly silly product of 19th-century noblesse oblige to "modern slavery." Either way, the grumbling has long since graduated from complaints about violations to genuine outrage over the amateur model. This is a good thing. I agree! But sometimes we get a little carried away.

Case in point: The noise has gotten so loud that the man in the center of this mess, NCAA president Mark Emmert, has practically reached villain status, which is impressive, considering how hard it is to become a villain when you sit atop a boring bureaucracy whose stated mission is basically "education and sports, fun right?" Things have not gone well for Emmert since he took over in Indianapolis, from the Miami scandal that turned into an NCAA scandal to that combative April press conference to pretty much everything else. The struggle is too real.

But, that all said, here are three things worth keeping in mind when you talk about the President of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

[+] EnlargeMark Emmert
AP Photo/Darron CummingsNCAA president Mark Emmert has nearly reached villain status and maybe it's time to consider whether or not that 's fair.
1) Being NCAA president is a lot like being the commissioner of a pro sports league. You are the powerful-seeming public face of a bunch of dudes that are actually powerful. Being actually powerful, they don't want to be all that public. It is really easy to get mad at Roger Goodell (and rightfully so, because that guy is just the worst) and David Stern, but those men typically act on the word of the 32 (or whatever) immensely wealthy men who chose them for the position in the first place. So it is with Emmert. He is a representative of the membership. It does no good to comment on this story; talk to your favorite university president instead.

2) Emmert hears you. He gets it. Sort of. I think.

"One thing that sets the fundamental tone is there's very few members and, virtually no university president, that thinks it's a good idea to convert student-athletes into paid employees. Literally into professionals," NCAA president Mark Emmert said Monday at Marquette University. "Then you have something very different from collegiate athletics. One of the guiding principles (of the NCAA) has been that this is about students who play sports."

That quote, from this story, was received Monday as "NCAA president says players will never be paid, twirls mustache, laughs maniacally," when really all it was was Emmert reiterating to the public that the NCAA has a place it will not even consider going. That place is "directly employing players." Obviously. Duh. The NCAA would rather be sued by 100 duck-sized Ed O'Bannons than think about actually paying players a salary. I don't know exactly why there is such solemn resistance to doing so, and maybe that will change if the facade continues to crumble. But this is not exactly news, you know? It's more like a reminder.

What Emmert didn't say is that the membership was opposed to all reform. In fact, his emphasis of what the membership wouldn't do seems to almost intentionally build a contrast. Maybe I'm reading too much into that. Maybe I'm wishcasting. But doesn't that seem like he's laying down basic framework for the debate to come? It does, right? Right?

Anyway, one more thing to remember:

3) The NCAA didn't create the NFL's, or the NBA's, age limits.

It's actually sort of shocking how often people seem to forget this. It's also shocking how often people forget that there are plenty of professional leagues in the world and that, if a player is good enough, he could probably get to the NBA just by working out with folding chairs for a year. (Word to Yi Jianlian.) But the point is the NCAA does not force anyone to go to college. The NBA and the NFL do. That is their prerogative as businesses. You can argue that players should have the right to earn money from the use of their own likeness whether they're a player at an NCAA institution or not, and that argument is a completely valid one.

But people always seem to forget that the percentage of everyone in college basketball, from the wealthiest coach on down, who would love to see the one-and-done rule wiped from this Earth is like 99.999. Maybe a clean 100.0. In the meantime, if college football players like Johnny Manziel have a serious philosophical issue with not being able to sign autographs for money — which is fair! — they can always choose not to play college football. Or organize on their own behalf. In practice, I realize, things are not that simple, especially for college football players. But you kind of have to know what you sign up for, right? And shouldn't the rest of us at least remember which organization is really to blame?

I'd like to clarify: None of the above is an argument on the NCAA's behalf. I don't really agree with Emmert, because once you get past my rhetorical needle-search, you see Emmert is a man making an argument on behalf of his employers that is essentially "because that's how it's always worked." Which is, I don't know, the worst argument ever? It's up there.

What the above is, like Emmert's hard line against employment, a mere reminder. "Emmert" doesn't equal "NCAA." The pro leagues have a part to play. And the NCAA membership seems to hear the waters rising around them. Think about college sports 30 years ago. Think about how often university presidents got together with the NCAA chief to gauge everyone's thoughts on paying players. Think about how out of place that conversation would have seemed.

Look at the NCAA now. If only barely, it appears the conversation it desperately needs to have -- the one about the type of survival it will be willing to accept -- is getting its alpha test.

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