NCAA responding to winds of change

NCAA president Mark Emmert didn't see the boulder sitting behind him on that July day when he announced unprecedented sanctions against Penn State.

But it was there, waiting for someone to get it rolling.

The bungled Miami investigation gave it a good tap, followed by a decent shove from Ed O'Bannon and, finally, the last bit of oomph, courtesy of Johnny Manziel.

Now the NCAA isn't so much Sisyphus, helplessly rolling the boulder back up the hill, as it is an ant, watching it tumble at full blast and scurrying away in the hopes of not getting steamrolled.

While explaining the decision to reduce the scholarship penalties against Penn State, Emmert insisted this was unprecedented action for unprecedented circumstances.

Nothing the NCAA does can be taken in a vacuum. As much as the organization likes to preach about individual cases and unique decisions, it is, as it also likes to remind us, a membership organization. Its actions -- or, more accurately its reactions -- always encompass the greater good.

This decision says as much about where the NCAA is today as the tough stance taken just 14 months ago defined the organization then.

There is less of an appetite for a punitive and righteous NCAA than there ever has been. The public doesn't want cheaters, but it has seen how the collegiate sausage is made and doesn't like the current rulebook any more than the cheaters. From APU armbands to dissecting investigative reports, the culture has changed -- and changed dramatically.

Between those shifting tides, jabs and body blows from frustrated conference commissioners, and lawsuits coming at it from every angle -- O'Bannon on behalf of athletes, the Paterno family on behalf of Penn State -- the NCAA is at a critical crossroads that may end up as a fight for its very livelihood.

That's why Emmert came out earlier this week promising big changes to the NCAA's governance structure; that's why this announcement came on Tuesday.

And that's why three months ago, Michigan State president and NCAA Executive Committee chairwoman Lou Anna Simon hinted that change was coming.

When asked to revisit the Penn State decision, as part of a broader question on Emmert's tenure as a leader, Simon admitted that both the NCAA and Penn State caved to external pressures when they agreed to the hefty sanctions.

"I think the Penn State issue that was done, there was an outcry to do something and do it quickly,'' she told ESPN.com. "…At the time, the decision was to accept the Freeh Report and not have the NCAA separately investigate. That sure seemed like a good decision at the time.

"I think now it might have been handled differently by both parties. … In hindsight, you have to decide how much the public outcry pushed both sides in a process that was unconventional. It wasn't just the NCAA but Penn State that was the focus of this public outcry.''

She added that if the same case was to come before the executive committee today, it probably would have come to a different conclusion. "Hopefully, with some of the changes in the [NCAA] enforcement process that are part of the structure agreed to, we would have been able to act differently,'' she said.

That's where we are now -- trying to do business differently because the NCAA has to do business differently.

In January, the NCAA will gather for its annual convention, an event that usually houses as much news as a gathering of diaper-training toddlers.

This will be different.

Most everyone agrees that there needs to be some sort of dispassionate third party to govern things. The anarchy in college sports makes the Wild West look bashful.

But there is a groundswell of opinion, bordering on a coup, that the current model is outdated and out of touch. From the NCAA's complicated rulebook to the entire concept of amateurism, the very essence of the organization is up for discussion and restructuring.

When Emmert became NCAA president, he promised to be a tough enforcement cop. "We need to make sure our penalty structure and enforcement process imposes a thoughtful level of concern, and that the cost of violating the rules costs more than not violating them,'' he said in 2011.

Which is why the Penn State decision was supposed to be his moment. Here was a powerful and strong NCAA flexing its enforcement muscle in the wake of an unimaginable scandal.

Instead, the announcement served as his Waterloo, the first crack of the lid on Pandora's box. Instead of patting the NCAA on the back, people questioned the organization's authority to levy such punishments. They wondered why Penn State football players, who were no more than children themselves when the crimes were perpetuated, were paying for something they had nothing to do with.

And then along came the mess at Miami, which made the NCAA look as conniving as the connivers, and Ed O'Bannon, who opened everyone's eyes to the financial disparity between the real haves (the universities) and the have-nots (the players). Finally, Johnny Football came under fire for having the audacity to allegedly profit from his own name.

So here we are, dialing back punishments and arguing it has nothing to do with anything save Penn State's good behavior, when in reality it has everything to do with the state of the aggravated NCAA union.

The boulder is rolling downhill now, gaining speed every day. It's up to the NCAA to decide if it wants to reroute it or get run over.