The Misdirection of Pitchforks and Torches

The list of things that the NCAA is good at is not terribly long these days, and it’s getting shorter by the minute. Popular opinion is on the side of sending Mark Emmert to the guillotine, either because there’s no way he didn’t know that an NCAA investigator was violating the Association’s own principles and ignoring the advice of the Legal Department, or because he should have known because that’s what the man at the top does. (To his credit, Robert Wheel does note that the NCAA’s problems don’t begin or end with Emmert.)

What the NCAA is very good at, however – especially these days – is providing cover. In the same way that Congress gets saddled with an abysmal public approval rating while individual members keep getting much higher marks from their constituents, we’re never hesitant to decry the NCAA while saying almost nothing about the university presidents, chancellors, athletic directors, and conference commissioners. Mark Emmert didn’t appear out of thin air and declare dominion over all that is college athletics. He was appointed by an Executive Committee made up of chancellors and presidents from all levels of NCAA competition. Not that you’ll find much mention of the Executive Committee on the NCAA’s website, where there’s a whole section devoted to the Office of the President. And I’m betting most college football fans who can name Emmert as the current NCAA president couldn’t name four members of the Executive Committee.

The end result is that Emmert, and everyone else in the NCAA office, is ultimately accountable to the same people they’re trying to police. Inevitably, that leads to oversight where appearances matter more than substance, because the member institutions want to demonstrate they can self-regulate (to avoid losing the financial benefits of amateurism and to keep third-party oversight they couldn’t control at bay) while also keeping that self-regulation as minimal as acceptable. It’s regulatory capture not by campaign contribution, but by design.

(As an aside, that’s, in part, why Donna Shalala’s shot across the bow rings a little hollow. Miami wants to paint itself as the victim here when, if we’re focusing on the NCAA overstepping its bounds, the real damage was done to the two private parties who were improperly subject to the subpoena power. It remains to be seen if the NCAA can effectively apply the exclusionary rule to itself in delivering a final investigative report.)

The criticisms of the NCAA – that it enforces outdated rules in an arbitrary manner, that it may have an internal culture wildly inconsistent with its mission – are valid. But whether or not the NCAA’s mandate to ensure amateurism is a worthwhile one, the organization is, at best, set up to only half-succeed in that pursuit. What the member institutions have done, by way of analogy, is create a Food and Drug Administration with 1) a dual-mandate to promote the pharmaceutical industry while also regulating it for the safety of consumers and 2) staffed the board of that fictitious FDA with nothing but drug company executives.

Most of us won’t be surprise if this debacle culminates in Mark Emmert leaving his post as NCAA president. But that regime change won’t just be a reflection of Emmert’s failures. It’s also a fulfillment of one of the unofficial duties of an NCAA president – give the public someone to behead while the kings remain untouched.

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