NEW ORLEANS — Mike Krzyzewski smirked when he was informed that his Final Four news conference Thursday would be followed immediately by NCAA president Mark Emmert’s annual filibuster at this event.
When one reporter jokingly asked the winningest coach in college basketball history if he had a question he’d like the media to ask Emmert, Krzyzewski said just a few words but managed to say it all.
“I have many questions,” he responded.
Don’t we all?
Emmert has done 11 of these “state of the NCAA” press conferences during his time at the helm of the association. Some have been contentious. Some have been full of propaganda and fluff. Some have included conference commissioners and other administrators to show a united front in the face of tough questions.
But this one was none of those things. At the end of an NCAA Tournament that has once again highlighted how magical the best of college sports can be, Emmert’s performance was just a sad capitulation from someone who has run out of answers for an organization that no longer seems capable of determining its own destiny.
“We’re at a place of huge disjuncture around college sports,” said Emmert, who went on to suggest that the NCAA has a window of a year or two to figure out, well, everything.
So. Many. Issues.
A lot of the buzzwords and issues were familiar.
There’s angst around the NCAA’s complete failure to manage the environment around name, image and likeness. There’s a broken enforcement model, with cases taking too long to adjudicate and punishments often being directed toward those who had nothing to do with the violations. At this very Final Four, in fact, there’s one school — Kansas — that was charged with five Level 1 violations 2 1/2 years ago and not only hasn’t been punished yet but gave coach Bill Self a lifetime contract in the interim.
After a series of losses in the court system, the notion of college athletes becoming paid employees is up for grabs. The NCAA’s questionable handling of gender equity issues stemming from last year’s women’s basketball tournament continues to reverberate. Politicians in some states are now targeting transgender athlete participation, an issue the NCAA declined to address proactively when it allowed University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas to participate in the national championships.
And yet, in the face of all these existential issues that will shape college sports for decades after Emmert is gone, his fundamental strategy has not really changed. Since it’s pretty clear the NCAA is incapable of saving itself, it has turned to the one organization that is just as dysfunctional — the United States Congress — to lead it out of the abyss.
Good luck, Mark.
“The legal landscape as it exists today simply will not support and sustain the way college sports is conducted today,” Emmert said. “So we need to help change that landscape if people want to continue to see events like this championship being conducted the way it’s being conducted this tournament. I think this tournament has put on full display the beauty of college sports, as has the women’s tournament.
“People love it and enjoy it, and we’ve got to work with the schools and with Congress to make sure we can continue that.”
Not only does that seem foolishly naïve — despite multiple bills and hearings to establish federal name, image and likeness legislation in the last couple of years, Congress hasn’t exactly pushed the ball forward yet — it’s also pathetic.
The NCAA needs congressional help not because of flaws in the legal landscape, but because the NCAA has spent decades failing to do the hard things that the moment now demands. Despite Emmert’s warnings that significant NCAA reform must take place immediately to modernize the organization in meaningful ways, what evidence exists that it’s even possible?
Following Emmert’s news conference Thursday, the NCAA trotted out SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and Ohio University athletics director Julie Cromer for a 15-minute side session about the NCAA’s new Division I “transformation committee” that has been empowered by the Board of Governors to take a deep dive into the biggest issues facing college sports and come up with ways to make it all work better.
“It’s an important time to embrace change we know is coming in our industry,” Cromer said. “It’s upon us.”
Perhaps, after decades upon decades of nibbling at the edges, this group of 21 administrators will finally be the ones to accept the reality of where college sports is headed, bridge the big divides between the big and small schools in Division I and come up with a dramatically new and improved NCAA.
But history suggests this is not possible. Not just because there’s a well-established track record of alphabet soup committees and initiatives that have ended up wasting everyone’s time — remember when Power Five autonomy was supposed to solve all the problems? — but because these are pretty hard problems to solve when there’s no common vision for what college sports should be.
Heck, 12 conference commissioners can’t even agree on how to expand the College Football Playoff, which has an instant, multi-billion dollar incentive attached to it.
So when you talk about something as aspirational as “transformation,” it’s only natural to be cynical when the effort is being led largely by the same types of people, like Sankey, who have spent their entire careers on every NCAA committee known to mankind and failed to deliver much in the way of meaningful change.
“There are realities we face that we haven’t faced before,” Sankey said. “There are states adopting and approving and implementing laws that change the nature of how we function. We have legal outcomes that say not changing is not an option. How that manifests itself, that remains to be seen.”’
For the past few years, the NCAA has been under siege legally and legislatively in a way that nobody has ever seen before. If there’s actual leadership within the organization to keep it viable, it’s urgent that he or she reveal themselves.
The time has long since passed that anyone in college sports viewed Emmert as that leader. The only differences between his first Final Four press conference and his 11th were that his paycheck has grown, his influence has waned and college sports is in a more precarious place than it’s ever been.
Like Krzyzewski, we all have many questions about where this organization is headed. But one thing’s for certain: If the entire fate of the NCAA rests on the shoulders of politicians, it’s not going anywhere good.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NCAA has no clue how to solve myriad problems it faces