The NCAA's shame and embarrassment in extending Mark Emmert's contract

The most galling part of the contract extension the NCAA Board of Governors gave to president Mark Emmert on Tuesday is that it was embarrassed to give it to him. It is made up almost entirely of college presidents, a group of people that often pay $50,000 retainers to public relations consultants to use buzz words like “transparency” and “accountability.”

When it actually came time to be accountable, transparent and show a smidge of credibility, the “servant leaders” — there’s another favorite — all hid like the gutless and clueless group we’ve expected leading the NCAA.

In the 494th word of a press release the NCAA sent out at 9:06 p.m. on Tuesday, the organization snuck in a casual mention — under the heading "Other Business" — that embattled president Mark Emmert received a two-year contract extension. His deal is now extended through 2025, and the NCAA poured another layer of cement on its reputation as the most dysfunctional and rudderless organization in sports.

“Stunning,” said one prominent athletic director Tuesday. “And we wonder why there’s no credibility in college athletics.”

There are 23 members of the NCAA Board of Governors who made the decision on Emmert. It’s a motley crew that varies from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Grant Hill to 17 current and former presidents. College presidents are, at the core, overpaid professional fundraisers, academics turned politicians who sign up for things like the NCAA Board of Governors to stick their pinkies a little further out at cocktail parties.

When a group “unanimously” votes a wildly overpaid ($2.7 million) and unpopular NCAA leader two more years on his contract in a 16-word press release, it’s the higher education equivalent of throwing a stink bomb in a lecture hall to avoid taking a final exam. Surely, a group of people that smart couldn’t have concluded this news should be treated like South Dakota State hiring a new SID.

“Mark getting extended to 2025 might destroy this organization,” added another prominent athletic director. “The board is delusional.”

We’ll tick off the roll call of Emmert’s failures and foibles later — it promises to be an incomplete list. The real abdication of leadership by Georgetown president Jack DeGioia, the Board of Governors’ chair, was ignoring Emmert’s latest embarrassment.

NCAA president Mark Emmert testifies during a senate commerce subcommittee hearing on intercollegiate athlete compensation on Capitol Hill on Feb. 11, 2020. (AP)
NCAA president Mark Emmert testifies during a Senate commerce subcommittee hearing on intercollegiate athlete compensation on Capitol Hill on Feb. 11, 2020. (AP)

“Even if you set aside everything else about his presidency and leadership, to extend him prior to the conclusion of the Kaplan [Hecker & Fink LLP] review is inexcusable,” said a Division I conference commissioner.

The NCAA hired an outside law firm to examine potential issues in late March when inequities arose amid the workout facilities at the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The controversy loomed over much of the early part of the NCAA tournaments, but it was apparently forgotten by the Board of Governors.

“It signals that the BOG does not take gender equity seriously enough if they’re clearly not going to hold the highest executive accountable for one of the foundational values of the NCAA,” the commissioner added. “It’s extremely disappointing to say the least.”

The irony of the allegedly unanimous vote for Emmert’s extension is that his unpopularity among college athletics’ most prominent leaders is nearly unanimous.

But Emmert’s name came up with the open chancellor job at LSU, where he served from 1999 to 2004. The only logical reason for the 23 BOG rubes to be convinced an extension was necessary here was a leverage play. The result is the administrative delinquency equivalent of signing off on Charlie Weis’ Notre Dame contract or Gus Malzahn’s Auburn buyout.

A summary of Emmert’s failures over his more than decade in charge of the NCAA is tricky to condense. But his tenure as president has seen the NCAA enforcement department turned irrelevant and overseeing an association-wide failure on finding a Name Image and Likeness solution. That leads to Emmert’s biggest administrative blunder, allowing the future of college sports to be out-sourced to a group of judges and politicians who actually know less about college sports than the presidents who run it. And that’s saying something. (Emmert also bungled the NCAA tournament TV deal, costing the NCAA billions by taking it to market eight years too early.)

College presidents are individually brilliant people who’ve risen to the tops of their profession. But in general, college presidents are as qualified to make the decisions determining the future of college sports as a Hilton sister is qualified to play nose tackle in the NFL.

“Presidents and chancellors are smart, but they have a lot on their plates,” said Nebraska Faculty Athletic Representative Jo Potuto, a law professor who has served as the NCAA committee on infractions chair. “They think they understand college sports, but they don’t.”

College sports have grown too big for college presidents. The most illuminating part of this NCAA BOG decision is that it illustrates the leadership insistence to pretend otherwise. If college presidents are spending enough time to understand all the nuances, implications and ramifications of their decisions amid a complex billion-dollar business, they’re being derelict to their own campuses.

There are a few presidents at major colleges who have a holistic understanding of the cosmic issues. But the presidents of Emporia State University, Bates College and University of South Carolina Aiken have no business making decisions for Alabama, Ohio State and USC.

NCAA president Mark Emmert attends a game between Texas and South Carolina during the women's basketball tournament March 30, 2021. (Elsa/Getty Images)
NCAA president Mark Emmert attends a game between Texas and South Carolina during the women's basketball tournament March 30, 2021. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Last month, Yahoo reported that one major conference agreed to have its athletic directors signal their dissatisfaction with Emmert to their presidents. They wanted action on his inaction. A few sources estimated to Yahoo that Emmert’s approval rating among commissioners was less than 10%. Some went as far to speculate on the fault lines forming of a major conference breakaway.

But much of the reaction was defeatism Tuesday night. “Brutal,” said a second Division I conference commissioner. “There are simply no words,”

What’s also consistent is how Emmert is viewed at the presidential level outside the Board of Governors. Yahoo Sports reached out to four presidents on Tuesday, and the BOG’s decision stunned them. Another source pointed out that the BOG’s agenda isn’t shared, which is why the news caught everyone off guard.

President 1: “I am shocked. Many people thought it was time for a change. Overdue, actually.”

President 2: “Wow. I am befuddled.”

President 3: “Simply baffling! And unanimous at that.”

President 4: “Wow. Apoplectic is the right word.”

Just like there’s a disconnect between Emmert’s achievement and his advancement, there’s also a chasm between the NCAA Board of Governors and the opinions of the membership.

It should always be noted that Emmert has a hard job. The NCAA president’s power has decreased exponentially in his time, some of which isn’t his fault. Some of it is. “The only thing more screwed up than the system is that no one has an answer of how to un-screw up the system,” said longtime political pundit James Carville, an LSU graduate who lauded Emmert’s work there. “They don’t.”

Just like the NCAA Board of Governors didn’t have any answers or explanations for their decisions. Instead, they dropped their stink bomb and retreated back to their ivory towers. They'll let everyone else clean up after their 16-word press release.

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