Attitude, organizational shortcomings make NCAA president Mark Emmert easy target at Final Four

ATLANTA – In the end, the only thing missing from Mark Emmert's Final Four meeting with the media was Jay Bilas firing a tranquilizer dart into the NCAA president's neck, felling him on the spot, then posing for pictures over the carcass.

Otherwise, just about every element of a big game hunt was in place here Thursday in the Georgia World Congress Center.

Emmert was the quarry. He did his best to evade capture, delivering a 17-minute opening filibuster about the state of change within the NCAA. That apparently was in hopes of shortening his time within firing range.

But patient reporters kept up the pursuit, eventually cornering Emmert and aiming every weapon in their arsenal at a bloated target that couldn't run forever.

Emmert had to answer questions about an institution that has helplessly watched King Football lay waste to traditional conference allegiances, to the benefit of no one but the most powerful leagues. He had to answer questions about the Final Four presence of Syracuse, which has been under NCAA investigation for ages for a host of issues, as first reported in March 2012 by Yahoo! Sports – just the latest school under investigation or on probation to be on the brink of winning it all. He had to answer questions about self-inflicted wounds within the NCAA's enforcement department, which have led to a number of staff changes and has compromised the high-profile Miami investigation.

And then things really got feisty.

There was an acidic question from eternal NCAA critic Joe Nocera of The New York Times. There was a weird question about the report Wednesday, which alleged multiple violations involving football players at Auburn, and how that poorly reflects on allegedly clueless NCAA enforcement. (Note: The NCAA has been investigating Auburn football for months, as Yahoo! Sports first reported last November.) And there was a testy exchange with Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, who in February called for Emmert to resign after the NCAA acknowledged the Miami investigation fiasco.

"I'm still standing," Emmert said to Dodd as he left the podium. "I know you're disappointed."

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Plenty of people are disappointed by that fact. Emmert wins the prize as the most embattled NCAA president in the 62-year history of the position.

That status brought tension to the interview room Thursday. There was a flotilla of NCAA staffers on hand, as if a fight might break out and Emmert would need the backup. At least one was diligently checking to see what was being said on Twitter about the media conference.

Emmert shrugged off the criticism as a byproduct of his agenda for major changes to the association and its rules. That's probably part of the equation. But there is far more to it than that.

Part of it is personal with Emmert: his cowboy approach to applying outside-the-box justice to Penn State struck many as a grandstand move. And his style of leadership has rubbed plenty of people wrong on both the inside and outside of the association. There are multiple national media outlets with Emmert squarely in their crosshairs right now.

But the far bigger problem is the very entity of the NCAA. It remains a slow, secretive and complex organization in a time of unprecedented societal impatience and transparency.

Example: A story breaks on a Wednesday afternoon on Auburn football. By Thursday one faction of the country has declared the Tigers guilty on Twitter. Another faction has gone to war upon the story's author and declared Auburn victim of yet another unfair media witch hunt.

The NCAA? Give it a year or so. There must be time to investigate, make findings (or not) and send the school before the committee on infractions. Then a couple more months before any penalties would be assessed.

America's sporting public can't handle that. Heck, a solid segment of America's sporting media can't handle that, either. Too complicated.

As a society, we're well-equipped to fire Mike Rice in 24 hours – because the video of the former Rutgers coach abusing players makes it abundantly clear. But we don't deal so well with subtlety and complexity, and almost every NCAA infractions case is steeped in those things.

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Instead, it's easier to fall back on the old reliable position of paranoia and persecution. My Favorite School was unfairly railroaded by the inept, agenda-driven NCAA. All other schools get a pass from the NCAA because My Favorite School is hated by the powers that be.

It's tiresome and simplistic, but that's the mindset the NCAA has to deal with. And it does not help that the institution has done a historically terrible job of explaining and defending itself.

Even though strides have been made in that area, there is at least one step back for every two steps forward. It remains an unwieldy bureaucracy charged with maintaining an amateur athletic system that is both hated and largely flouted.

The public hears stories about student-athletes who cannot afford to go out for pizza. Some of them are true. And some of those poor student-athletes know exactly which restaurant will give them free pizza. And which booster will give them spending money. And which agent will funnel the big money to family members. And which teacher will give you a B for doing D work. And so forth.

But for the most part, it seems like the public has made up its mind: The NCAA is bad. This falls in line with how a lot of people think about large governing bodies. They don't like them and don't trust them.

There are reasons to dislike and distrust. But college sports without the NCAA would be anarchy, a complete jailbreak.

I've talked to a couple of conference commissioners in recent weeks who understand that, and want no part of breaking away from the NCAA. They realize that somebody has to run the basketball tournament and keep an eye on the cheaters – even if it's a partially blind eye.

So I don't believe the institution is going anywhere, no matter how fervently some might wish it. But at this vulnerable point in time, whoever heads the NCAA is a rich target for critics. The fact that it is Mark Emmert – a more outspoken, power-fixated president than bland Miles Brand – only increases the size of the bull's-eye for the hunters.

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