Amid backdrop of scandal, NCAA president Mark Emmert makes $3.9 million

NCAA president Mark Emmert answers questions at a news conference at the Final Four on April 4, 2019. (AP)
NCAA president Mark Emmert answers questions at a news conference at the Final Four on April 4, 2019. (AP)

That NCAA working group that was announced last week to study name, image and likeness compensation for college athletes? Let’s hope it puts the accent on working. It’s go time.

The more financial disclosures we get from around college athletics, the harder it is to justify a status quo that says athletes don’t deserve more than they’re getting.

Yahoo Sports reported one whopper of a salary around noon ET Thursday: National Association of Basketball Coaches executive director Jim Haney is pulling down more than $1 million a year while fading into the woodwork as his sport is engulfed in scandal. A few hours later, that was reduced to an “in other news” sidebar.

Why? Because NCAA president Mark Emmert’s latest salary figures popped.

The eternally embattled Emmert received a 60 percent increase in compensation between Sept. 1, 2017 and Aug. 31, 2018, according to the NCAA’s 990 financial disclosure. Emmert’s pay skyrocketed from $2.4 million the previous year to $3.9 million, thanks to what was described as a one-time, $1.4 million deferred payment that was written into his contract.

The timing of that payday is coincidental, but also far from ideal.

Here’s what happened during those 12 months when Emmert was making a financial killing: The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and the FBI were blowing the lid off of college basketball — making arrests, filing indictments and doling out subpoenas. The 2017-18 season was played under a cloud of suspicion and investigation that still hasn’t lifted, and could well result in vacated ’18 NCAA tournament appearances and victories.

It wasn’t a very good year for the association. Except in terms of presidential pay.

“It’s completely unfair and a bit hard to take when you look at the big picture,” said Ramogi Huma, founder and president of the College Athletes Players Association. “There are absolutely no measures from what I see that warrant a 60 percent pay increase. It’s more reflective of the value that NCAA sports continue to strip away from the players, who are producing this revenue. It’s not just immoral and unjust, but it’s illegal.”

During his nearly $4 million year, Emmert did do a very NCAA thing in response to the scandal: He formed a committee. It was a blue-ribbon-type committee, with a lot of highly accomplished people on it, led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Over the course of six months, the Commission on College Basketball produced a report that put forth some good suggestions, some of which were quickly implemented into NCAA bylaws.

A year later, however, there is no evidence that the Rice Commission profoundly altered college basketball in any way. Its findings generated more cynicism than energy. It was a box checked, not a mountain moved.

This next year will tell the tale on whether there will be serious culture change within college basketball, as the NCAA gets down to the business of what could be up to a dozen major infractions cases. If we arrive at Memorial Day weekend 2020 with nobody facing a postseason ban and no coaches having lost their jobs, the NCAA has failed to the point that it should be plowed under.

But this is important to keep in mind while swinging sticks at the bloated NCAA piñata: Emmert is hardly the only guy getting rich off the system.

Haney’s salary is less defensible, given his complete absence of impact. And then there are the conference commissioners, most of whom remain in the same positions they occupied during the naked money grab that led to the realignment spasm at the beginning of the current decade.

Per the latest reported figures, here is what the heads of the Power Five conferences are pulling down: Jim Delany of the Big Ten, $5.5 million; Larry Scott of the Pac-12, more than $5 million; John Swofford of the Atlantic Coast Conference, $3.3 million; Bob Bowlsby of the Big 12, $3.1 million; Greg Sankey of the Southeastern Conference, $2 million.

From Emmert to the commissioners to the athletic directors to the revenue-sport coaches, everyone at the top of college athletics can use $100 bills for Kleenex if they want.

Except, of course, the players.

The winds of change on that front increased from completely still to a slight breeze last week with the announcement of a name-image-likeness working group. The timing is enough to make a suspicious mind wonder whether the inevitable release of Emmert’s pay boost needed a pre-emptive softener. Either that, or the legal defeats the NCAA has endured pushed the association into action (part of the NCAA’s 990 release Thursday was a notation that legal expenses soared from $36 million to $57 million year-over-year).

“I think the appropriate word is optics,” former Northeastern athletic director and Harvard basketball coach Peter Roby said in a phone interview Thursday. He referenced generally the NCAA’s penchant for rule changes to follow waves of bad publicity. “So much of what’s transpired with the NCAA and legislation has been mostly about optics. … If those optics were so concerning that they moved people to legislation, where is the concern over the optics about Mark’s compensation?”

The optics of Mark Emmert’s pay raise are bad. There may never be a good time for 60 percent salary spike for a president of a non-profit organization that has stoutly resisted paying student-athletes, but this certainly wasn’t it.

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