There is no hiding Mark Emmert now.
The president of the NCAA is scheduled to take the witness stand Thursday in the Ed O'Bannon vs. NCAA trial in Oakland, Calif. He will not be able to flank himself with university presidents to help deflect scrutiny, the way he did at the NCAA convention in January. He will not be able to defer to a dais full of other power brokers, the way he did at the Final Four.
It will just be him, speaking on behalf of an organization under unprecedented fire both financially and philosophically. At a time when the NCAA needs him to be at his best, we'll see how he handles it.
Emmert's previous PR stumbles as The Face of College Sports – from mishandling the Miami investigation blowback to a debacle of a press conference at the 2013 Final Four – led to a change in approach. The NCAA blended his face with others in an apparent attempt to deflect the bullets and/or mitigate rhetorical damage.
At the 2014 convention in San Diego, there was not the standard state of the NCAA speech from Emmert – instead, he conducted his own Q&A with the presidents leading Divisions I, II and III. It was useful if you cared what the president of West Texas A&M had to say more than the president of the NCAA. At the Final Four in April, Emmert altered his customary press conference – changing both the day (from Thursday to Sunday, when everyone was busy previewing the national title game) and the format (to include other voices). What is annually the NCAA president's single biggest media opportunity became a chance to hear from the president of UC Irvine, and a chance for Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby to sound like the strongest leader in the room.
It was a remarkable public retreat for a guy who was eager to take the lead in circumventing NCAA enforcement protocol and smashing Penn State with sanctions two years ago. Emmert wanted to wield the hammer then, and wanted the spotlight that came with an unprecedented power play. Now, he seems far more motivated to sit back and remind everyone that he's just one cog in a complex machine that is prone to breakdowns.
Hard to have it both ways. The NCAA has never been a popular institution, but public confidence may be at low ebb now. And that reflects at least in part on the man in charge – even if he doesn't want to appear to be in charge anymore.
In judge Claudia Wilken's court room Thursday, it will be Emmert on his own in a crucial moment for the NCAA. The future and fabric of college sports will be impacted by this ruling, and no witness brings as much name recognition (for better or worse) as Emmert to the stand.
He and the association he leads would be well-served if he handles cross-examination better than he handled previous press conferences.
Emmert has plenty of intelligence, but it has at times been sabotaged by defensiveness and arrogance. Given the way most people seem to think the O'Bannon trial is going, a poor showing from Emmert won't help an organization that already is struggling to make its case and rebut the plaintiffs.
In the trial's early stages, the NCAA never seemed able to articulate what exactly "amateurism" means – which is a problem when the word is a routine part of the association's vernacular and one of its abiding principles. This week, the O'Bannon lawyers scored points by introducing emails in which an NCAA task force discussed paying players for use of their names, images and likenesses – which clearly contradicted any notion that such compensation had been previously unthinkable. The NCAA had thought about it, but never made it happen.
So if the legal analysts are right, the NCAA is in need of a rally at this point. Can Mark Emmert be the rally starter?
Changing the tenor of a trial seems like a tall task. Almost as tall as changing the NCAA culture.
This legal challenge to the NCAA's core principles was probably inevitable no matter who was in charge. And, truth be told, the fattening of the revenue calf – which has led to a deepening outrage over the athletes' share of the pie – is more attributable to the predatory greed of the power conferences than to the NCAA itself.
But even if the portrayal isn't 100 percent accurate, Emmert and the monolithic organization he heads in Indianapolis have come to symbolize everything that's wrong with College Sports Inc. Gridlock, controversial decisions, byzantine rules and thickly layered bureaucracy have created a perception that the NCAA equals the federal government – with possibly even lower approval ratings. The institution is easy to criticize and hard to understand.
But there is far more on the line in Oakland than just approval ratings. There are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, and who gets them will shape the future of college athletics.
It's a big spot for Mark Emmert. And nobody can sit in the witness stand with him.
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