HOUSTON -- Mark Emmert’s first Final Four media address gave him the chance to do what the president of the NCAA usually does at this point: Brag on the basketball tournament, and brag on the overall state of college athletics.
His points were valid in both cases. It’s been a spectacular tourney, and sports are generally a very positive aspect of higher education.
But you don’t get to be president of the NCAA by being tone-deaf, which meant Emmert also needed to acknowledge the steaming pile of scandal dumped upon the association’s doorstep in recent times.
“It is absolutely critical,” Emmert said, “that we get our arms around the integrity issues rapidly.”
Yeah, the integrity issues. On Wednesday and Thursday alone, these were some of the major headlines in college athletics:
Four former Auburn football players told HBO in a “Real Sports” segment that they were paid by boosters and coaches to play for the Tigers, and paid for making big plays. That’s in addition to the ongoing NCAA investigation of the national champions regarding former quarterback Cam Newton.
A Texas-based trainer/street agent allegedly told Texas A&M in 2007 that it had to pay at least $80,000 to sign cornerback Patrick Peterson, according to a former coach at the school. Peterson wound up signing with and starring for LSU, and the school did make a payment of $6,000 to the trainer/street agent for what it said was a DVD. That’s pocket change compared with what the same trainer/street agent got from Oregon, which paid him $25,000. The NCAA is investigating that.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel apologized for NCAA violations that resulted in the coach being suspended for five games in 2011. Tressel covered up potential violations by not telling anyone at the university when he was apprised of them -- but he did inform a friend/adviser to star quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Pryor is one of five Buckeyes who also will miss the first five games of the season for NCAA violations.
The Fiesta Bowl’s status as a member of the BCS is under review after an internal investigation revealed a potpourri of illegal activities and conspicuous consumption by its recently fired president and chief executive officer, John Junker.
Another former Kansas athletic department employee was sentenced to prison for his part in a $2 million ticket-scalping scandal.
Even at this Final Four, there are reminders that all is not well in college hoops. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun is here just five weeks after he was personally penalized and his program sanctioned for NCAA violations. His coaching adversary Saturday, Kentucky’s John Calipari, has had his two previous Final Four appearances vacated for violations that occurred on his watch.
“If I've learned anything in the six months [as NCAA president], the single biggest concern that I have among the threats to the collegiate model is simply the threat of integrity,” Emmert said. “I've heard concerns expressed by people all around the country about the integrity of intercollegiate athletics right now, that people are seeing things that they don't like and that I don't like and that many people are concerned about.
“As they see those things, they extrapolate across a whole enterprise of intercollegiate athletics. On the face of that, that's inherently unfair because the vast majority of what goes on inside intercollegiate athletics is done by people who have extraordinary integrity, have extraordinary concern for their student-athletes, and people who want nothing more than to have intercollegiate athletics be successful in all the ways we all want it to be.
“But there are those occasions where we have people from top to bottom who don't spend enough time and care in the conduct of this business. And we see that while we have an understanding about a lot of our values, sometimes we're lagging in that integrity. We need to be sure that we restore it. We need to make sure that people understand what we stand for. We need to make sure that we're willing to stand up behind that. And when we have people that don't want to conduct themselves consistent with the integrity of these games, we need to be ready to deal with that appropriately.”
Dealing with that appropriately means dropping the hammer in terms of penalties for rule-breakers. As Emmert himself pointed out, punishments need to transmit a “constructive fear” to potential scofflaws.
“We cannot have coaches, administrators, parents or student-athletes sitting out there deciding, ‘Is this worth the risk? If I conduct myself in this fashion, and if I get caught, it's still worth the risk.’” Emmert said. “We don't want those kind of cost-benefit analyses going on.”
There has been significant cost to the NCAA on the integrity front. The good news is that the president isn’t dodging that fact. The better news is that his enforcement staff has been as active and aggressive as it’s ever been in combating it.
Maybe by the time Emmert takes to the Final Four dais next year, there will be a few more big-time cheaters’ skins nailed to the wall.