Commentary

Bloated NCAA needs streamlining

Updated: July 31, 2010, 2:24 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

You can print out the names, titles and departments of the staff for the NCAA national office. All 13 mind-numbing pages.

If you're looking for reasons why the NCAA is as nimble as a dairy cow, those 495 names listed on its website are a good place to start. (And I'm not even counting the Test Department, which -- until it was deleted Thursday -- listed, no lie, Angelina Jolie and Alfre Woodard as associate directors and Brad Pitt as system director. No wonder the new March Madness TV rights were so expensive.)

[+] EnlargeNCAA logo
Aaron M. Sprecher/Icon SMIThe NCAA needs to slim down if it wants to be effective in the future.

The NCAA used to be lean and mean. Now it's as bloated as a Jabba the Hutt. It has become a huge, sluggish bureaucracy inhabited by a mixture of bright and occasionally brilliant administrators who care passionately about intercollegiate athletics and clueless, tone-deaf policy shapers and enforcers who have no real-world experience.

By the way, this isn't just me talking. I spoke with several coaches and former NCAA officials who question the organization's ability to remain relevant. The consensus: It can happen, but only if the NCAA is willing to make fundamental changes to the way it does business.

Right now, the NCAA has too many coats of bureaucratic paint. Its size has contributed to its inability to react quickly. Imagine a battleship trying to turn around in the Panama Canal. That's the NCAA.

It wasn't created for these times and these issues. It initially was the byproduct of then-President Theodore Roosevelt's concerns about the violent nature of a budding sport called football. As college athletics grew, so did the NCAA, evolving from a mom-and-pop organization to a dictatorship of sorts in the Walter Byers era to an overweight and sometimes clumsily ineffective regulatory body.

The NCAA means well, it really does. But good intentions don't always equal accomplishments. Those 495 staff members aren't going to like to hear that, but tough.

Lofty mission statements aside, the NCAA has three jobs: conduct national championship tournaments, provide rules of conduct and enforce those rules. That's it in a pecan shell.

What happened? The NCAA botched its chance to oversee the very sport it was created to monitor -- football -- and instead handed the car keys to the BCS. That means its stock portfolio consists basically of one exquisite blue chip holding -- the men's basketball tournament (which, by the way, it nearly ruined by expanding to 96 teams). So much for investment diversity.

As for rules, the NCAA can bylaw you to death. It recently announced that its rules manual is being consolidated in phases. Sorry, but the manual needs more than the South Beach diet. It needs liposuction.

Talk to coaches or compliance experts and they'll all say that the NCAA's rules are often confusing, redundant, outdated, maddeningly impractical or just plain stupid. Think about it: One of the biggest growth industries in college athletics is in the field of compliance administrators. Twenty five years ago, such rules-dedicated staffs were nearly nonexistent.

And enforcement? That's been a mixed bag of successes and confounding failures.

It isn't that the NCAA is unaware of the problem issues (recruiting abuses, ethics-free agents, runners, hangers-on, etc.) or that it isn't trying to address those issues. The real question is whether the NCAA is capable of solving those issues.

So far, the answer is a big, fat "no."

It took awhile, but the NCAA finally solved the decades-old problem of booster involvement. But now it struggles, sometimes laughably so, to investigate and battle the insurgency forces involved in basketball recruiting. Think biplanes versus stealth bombers.

It doesn't help that the NCAA has no subpoena power. Or that the very best NCAA investigators often move on, leaving the department with the very ordinary or with the very inexperienced -- sometimes both. And according to those who have worked in NCAA enforcement, too much time is wasted chasing minor cases or cases built on rumor rather than fact.

There is a growing disconnect between the NCAA and its membership. For example, would the NCAA ever have known about the Reggie Bush situation at USC if the media hadn't first reported it? And why did it take so long to conduct an investigation and render a decision and punishment -- punishment that won't affect Bush, his former coach or the school's soon-to-be-former athletic director? And what's the point of an appeals process if the appeals standard is so high as to virtually guarantee the status quo?

[+] EnlargeMark Emmert
AP Photo/AJ MastNew NCAA president Mark Emmert takes over at a key time for the organization.

The NCAA has lost its way. It doesn't do rules well. It doesn't do investigations and enforcement well. That's two out of three jobs it has done poorly.

It has spread itself a mile wide and an inch deep. It concerns itself with causes and issues that might be best handled by the individual conferences. Its past leadership, although well-meaning, didn't listen hard enough to those on the front line of college athletics.

New NCAA president Mark Emmert's plate will be full with all the usual legislative and issues-centric food groups: financial reform, continued academic reform, the BCS … the list is endless. But Emmert -- NCAA Employee No. 496 -- would be wise to first streamline his organization, its flow charts and its maze of rules.

Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson III, in a recent interview with ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil, had it right when he said of the NCAA: "The system is designed for a world that doesn't exist."

There is a new world of college athletics. It would be nice if the NCAA were part of it.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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