Mark Emmert is right, actually. The timing IS right for more decentralized college sports:
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
I have one of those old Fisher-Price basketball hoops in my backyard. My girls are six and three, so the plastic, four-foot hoop is the perfect size for them.
It's a great toy! But every once in a while, I have to take advantage of that sacred right bestowed upon every parent, every uncle, and every adult who works closely with small children. Every so often, I need to Dikembe one of their weak little layups all the way to Evanston. Sometimes, I just have to dunk on my kids.
Dunking on small children can feel very emotionally satisfying, especially if they've been whining for the last week. For a truly exceptional effort, one that involves a running start, perhaps a jump off a trampoline, I think it is fine to admire the effort and enthusiasm of the dunk. It's fun.
But at the end of the day, we also have to recognize the dunk for what it is. It was a grown man, dunking a four-foot hoop, over the outstretched arm of a 40 point child who can't even get the cereal bars out of the pantry by herself. It's not like it's especially hard.
This is generally how I feel about dunking on Mark Emmert.
Outside the NCAA Board of Governors, it's hard to find a constituency sympathetic to the guy
Athletic Directors reportedly aren't crazy about the guy. Conservative politicians like Sen.Marsha Blackburn don't live him. Progressive politicians like Sen.Chris Murphy aren't giving him ringing endorsements. Go to any message board, any subreddit, and fan community, declare that "the NCAA sucks", and watch the allocates trickle in.
Taking a shot at Emmert on Twitter or sports talk radio would be like my children taking a bat to a piñata. It's an easy target, and smacking it around still generates rewards.
I'm not saying those dunks and digs aren't largely deserved. The reason so many athletic administrators, politicians, fans and commentators dislike the face of the NCAA is because, well, the NCAA hasn't done such a great job over the last several years. Add in the fact that Emmert isn't exactly oozing with personal charisma, and well, you get the perfect punching bag.
So when Emmert told the AP last week that he figured now would be a good time for the NCAA to take a smaller regulatory role in college sports, I understand how it would be easy to laugh at him. After all, it's difficult to imagine how the Alston case could have gone much worse for the NCAA. Nothing about the first few weeks of the NIL era have made any of the apocalyptic predictions about loosening the bounds of amateurism look any less silly. Sure, the man got a contract extension, (an extension that isn't as strong as it looked a few months ago) but after the last few weeks, it's not like anybody in Indianapolis is really pontificating from a place of strength.
But let's take a look at what he actually said.
Via the AP:
“When you have an environment like that it just forces us to think more about what constraints should be put in place ever on college athletes. And it should be the bare minimum,” Emmert said.
Emmert said the NCAA’s more than 1,100 member schools should consider a less homogenous approach to the way sports are governed and re-examine the current three division structure, which includes 355 Division I colleges.
“We need to be ready to say, ‘Yeah, you know, for field hockey, field hockey is different than football. Wrestling is different than lacrosse,’ and not get so hung up on having everything be the same,”
This is hardly a unique revelation. The Knight Commission, the college sports reform think tank closest to the current athletic establishment, called for governance reform last year, including having FBS football governed by a completely different entity. The Drake Group has also endorsed various proposals to break up or diffuse NCAA regulatory authority on particular topics.
And for what it's worth, especially in the context of NIL, many administrators at smaller D-I conferences or programs have complained to me about spending so much time and energy over problems that quite simply more of an issue at Texas A&M than they would be at Texas Southern. If there is a massive "Bagman" program lurking in the Big Sky, well, they're doing a pretty good job at flying under the radar.
The last several decades should have made it abundantly clear that the current governance model, where a sprawling bureaucracy consisting of stakeholders from every possible type of university and athletic department tries to enforce rules that large swaths of membership don't even really care about, makes no sense. Penalties are by a faceless, capricious entity that could take years to reach a decision, and overwhelmingly against those with the least means to protest. Nobody feels good about the infractions process. Nobody feels good about ever having to spend time thinking about pasta crimes.
With so many different schools, with so many different budgets, different governing philosophies, different standards, different everything, getting anything done feels like a minor miracle. Of course we should stop pretending that the athletic departments at Ohio State and American University are peers, entities that should compete under similar restrictions and for similar championships. That's just a waste of everyone's time.
You don't have to set fire to everything you like about college sports if you admit that the current organization model doesn't fit our current reality. Emmert, in my view, is actually asking the exact right question here:
“I think this is a really, really propitious moment to sit back and look at a lot of the core assumptions and say, ‘You know, if we were going to build college sports again, and in 2020 instead of 1920, what would that look like?’ What would we change?"
Asking that question is the correct first step. The next one is doing something about it.
We're a long way from something actually happening. Emmert hasn't even made a formal proposal yet, there's no pending NCAA policy that would reorganize the divisional structure, vaporize half the rule book, or substantially shift anything.
The push to actually do some of those things could come from outside the NCAA. The federal government, after all, could still pass an NIL bill that comes with various other college athletics reforms. The free market or continued litigation could also force the NCAA to make changes before they'd like. Given how basically every other NCAA change has happened over the last several decades, betting on outside actions forcing change feels like a pretty safe.
But those changes could also start now, and perhaps more athletic directors and campus-level leaders could be more proactive about pushing for them. Perhaps, if we were to reimagine college sports in 2020 instead of 1920, D-I athletics would look more like esports, where the idea of 'amateurism' is foreign, the core day to day of the sport is run by outside entities, but schools still have powerful incentives to sponsor programs and work with athletes. Maybe it looks closer to the NAIA model, with substantially more decision-making authority is delegated to conferences and individual schools. Maybe it means creating different organizations to oversee each sport. Maybe it's something else entirely.
I have some ideas about what future NCAA college sports should look like, and I'm happy to share some of them in future newsletters this month. I hope other reform-minded academics, athletic leaders, current athletes and other entities share their ideas as well.
If the last few years were any indication, I think it's pretty likely that Emmert will give the internet plenty of other reasons to dunk on him over the course of any reform process.
But when he points out that the status quo is no longer sustainable, and that it's time to really sketch out what a college sports system looks like that isn't centered around Indianapolis? I think he's right. Making fun of that observation isn't a particularly insightful or impressive dunk.
It's a basic two-hander over a six year old. If you want applause, you're going to have to put a bit more effort into it than that.
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