The NCAA did not need the Miami situation. The organization has already had a very tough year -- it's just been one major, high-profile scandal after another, and meanwhile the BCS conferences only grow more powerful -- and at each step along the way critics have excoriated it for inconsistent punishment and feckless governance.
The allegations levied at Miami only doubled down on those perceptions. Even worse, former Miami athletic director Paul Dee, who oversaw the program through some of the most obvious years of Nevin Shapiro's existence, was the chairman of the committee on infractions when the committee levied harsh penalties against USC. His condescending tone toward USC in that case -- Dee famously said that "high-profile athletes require high-profile compliance" -- has, to critics, become a pitch-perfect symbol of the NCAA's inability to police itself.
In other words, NCAA president Mark Emmert's job is not an enviable one. He's the face of the organization, the one in charge of explaining the NCAA's beliefs to the public. The questions are only getting more pointed. Emmert appeared on ESPN late last week to discuss the need for reform, and he repeated that belief in an interview with the Los Angeles Times today. But he's also standing by the NCAA's enforcement process -- despite the concerns about Dee's time as the COI chair. From the interview:
The chairman [Dee] was one of nine voices on the committee. He has no more power than anyone else. We look at individual cases on their merits. What happened at Miami has no bearing on USC. I understand it doesn't feel right. We decide cases based on the facts on the ground, and we will continue to do that.
There's a whole lot in the interview, so you should read it all. Emmert is willing to bend on some issues. This, unfortunately, was not one of them.
It's a difficult response to swallow. For years, the Miami athletics department allowed a Ponzi-scheming hanger-on to commit violate just about every amateurism rule in the book, and he did so while he led Miami on the field on Saturdays. Shapiro had his own suite at home games and a players' lounge named after him. If high-profile athletes require high-profile compliance, as Dee said, then he was failing in his job even as he chided other programs for their violations. Emmert would be better off admitting to how regrettable this situation was, and he should be as open to reforming the NCAA committee on infractions as he is the cost-of-attendance scholarship structure.
After all, there's no way to eradicate cheaters in college sports. Whenever there's money to be made or games to be won, people will bend the rules to do so. Giving players an extra $2,000 a year might help lessen players' feeling that they're being exploited by an unfair system. Making sure cheaters know they "can no longer do a cost-benefit analysis of cheating," as Emmert says, may help in deterrence. But as the NCAA has stepped up its enforcement efforts in recent years, it's pulled back the curtain on the widespread rule-breaking at big-time college programs.
No public relations effort is going to solve that. But what Emmert can do is admit where the NCAA needs to get better -- not only in its policies governing memberships, but in the composition of the committees that police those members. It needs to be transparent. It needs to explain to fans the why just as much as the what.
And it needs to be flexible. If it can't do that, it can't change. If it can't change, it can't survive. The NCAA's continued existence is not guaranteed. Incrementalism -- buttressed by a frustrating inability to admit fault -- isn't going to get the job done.