Heat on new NCAA president to get tough

INDIANAPOLIS – In 2009, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions (essentially the organization’s judge and jury when it comes to rules violations) asked the NCAA’s Board of Directors (essentially the bosses) to allow for stronger penalties against misbehaving schools. They cited the need to “ramp up” the penalty phase to deter future cheaters.

What did the board say?

“We didn’t get an official answer,” said Josephine Potuto, a tough Nebraska law professor and the then-chair of the committee on infractions.

Mark Emmert says he will listen to the committee on infractions, but talk is cheap.
(Nick Laham/Getty Images)

That has been the story of the NCAA; a lack of action, a lack of leadership, a lack of respect for someone actually trying to impact the system. For decades it’s been better to do nothing than risk doing the right thing.

Two years later, both BCS title game participants are under investigation (so is the bowl executive who ran the game) and the men’s basketball champion cut down the nets two months after getting busted for committing eight major violations.

Scandals are overshadowing college sports. Potuto was correct to see it coming then. She is no less correct now. The NCAA needs to either overhaul its entire system (my preference) or get tough with the cheaters. Either way, the status quo isn’t working.

In ways both specific and general, this is the challenge for first-year NCAA president Mark Emmert: Can he broadly provide the powerful leadership to enact change even against the short-term interests of certain leagues or coalitions?

Or in this case, will he listen to the committee on infractions’ plea and try to strengthen the process?

“Yes,” Emmert said Tuesday. “… We need to make sure our penalty structure and enforcement process imposes a thoughtful level of concern, and that the cost of violating the rules costs more than not violating them.”

Whether he actually follows up, remains to be seen. Talk is cheap on this subject and what exactly is the NCAA president supposed to say? That he wants to go easy on schools that cut corners?

Emmert, the former president of the University of Washington, has been in charge for about six months and thus far we haven’t seen a lot to get excited about. It’s still early, however.

One of his initiatives is to make the NCAA “more transparent.” His reasoning is that if the public sees how the mostly well-meaning people who operate the organization do their jobs, and how the precise rules and various subcommittees function, they’ll have a better understanding when a puzzling future decision is made.

It’s a fine endeavor. To that end, the NCAA invited a bunch of media to its headquarters to participate in a day-long, “Enforcement Experience,” where we took a case from an initial tip right through the penalty phase of the infractions committee. They tried to answer every possible question and explain the process in detail. Considering that more than a decade ago the NCAA refused to send me its rules manual, the organization has come a long way. It’s for the better.

Core problems remain, and those challenges go beyond improved public relations. You can understand every flow chart or the genesis behind every rule yet still be rightfully puzzled by the decisions various NCAA bodies put forth.

The last six months were marked by athlete reinstatement decisions, mostly in football, that left fans confused and those inside college sports believing the system was being bulldozed by powerful conference commissioners.

For instance, the case of five Ohio State players getting a reprieve that allowed them to play in the Sugar Bowl, something Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany acknowledges he personally lobbied for, looked like business as usual.

The reinstatement of athletes should be done in a vacuum, free from influential advocates who are motivated by immediate concerns, not the overall good of the NCAA. You can’t blame Delany for doing what he thought was best for Ohio State at the time (although he has since expressed regret). You can blame the NCAA for allowing it.

To change that, Emmert would need to get individual schools – via the Board of Directors – to prohibit such interventions. That means he has to get the Jim Delanys of the world on board.

Since that same board of directors wouldn’t even discuss stiffer penalties for cheaters – something almost everyone would support in theory – Emmert obviously has his work cut out for him.

The Enforcement Experience offered glimpses into a system that can be improved. Former committee on infractions member Andrea Myers, the ex-athletic director at Indiana State, said that while a television ban is still a potential punishment, it never came up during her six years on the committee because “it screws up the whole conference,” she said.

Myers agreed that conference television contracts shouldn’t be a factor in doling out an individual case punishment but, “we have to be realistic.”

Understandable, except, what is this then? Can a team get banned from television or not? Does money overrule the rule book? Should another possible penalty be added in its place?

The NCAA should set up “sentencing guidelines,” if you will. You do this and you get that. Potuto said they rarely refer to previous cases because no two are alike. They should.

It would allow fans to have some belief that the NCAA isn’t just throwing out random penalties, rough for some schools, easy for others. It could add a measure of consistency and expectation that would go a long way to easing fan fears of selective enforcement.

The committee on infractions is a hot-button issue and it needs all sorts of work. The people are well-meaning. Potuto and Myers are the kind of tenacious judges you’d dread having to face as they blast out questions and pick apart explanations. Myers noted that up to 80 percent of coaches who come before the committee wind up crying at some point.

Fans would feel reassured knowing people such as this are trying to keep college football and basketball in line. Most cries from the public demand stronger sanctions (as long as they are consistently applied). The committee on infractions says the same thing.

Yet they’re hamstrung by schools and conferences who don’t seem as committed to even getting back to them on their suggestions.

Mark Emmert is supposed to make such changes happen and prove he isn’t under the thumb of a few select special interests. It’s no doubt a tough job. We’re going to find out whether he’s tough enough to do it.

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Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, May 11, 2011