- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In April 2010, when the NCAA chose Mark Emmert to be its fifth executive director, the organization Emmert inherited was beset on all sides by structural and optical challenges.
There were the minor things the NCAA has always dealt with: a laughably byzantine rulebook, the belief that its punishment of cheaters was arbitrary and often (at least to fans) ill-founded, the notion that student-athletes were far more the latter than the former, and so on. But there were greater issues, too. Suddenly, thanks to ruthless competition for TV contracts, a new wave of conference realignment was beginning to remake college athletics. The idea that universities didn't need the NCAA any more for its basketball postseason than it did for football, which the NCAA lost control over in 1984 at the hands of the Supreme Court, was gaining widespread credence.
Even more threatening was the sudden skepticism of amateurism itself. The Ed O'Bannon case was already churning through the court system by then; civil rights historian Taylor Branch exposed the less-than-flattering history of the organization's amateurism credo; and soon everyone from "South Park" to the New York Times was hammering away. Long accepted with little public outcry, the amateur "ideal" -- the NCAA's entire raison d'etre -- was withering under its most intense scrutiny ever.
The stakes were high. There would have to be changes. Emmert knew it, and almost immediately began laying them out. A streamlined rule book. More enforcement staff with smarter rules and clearer results. An increased emphasis on Academic Progress Rate. Perhaps most radically: A cost-of-living stipend for athletes -- $2,000 or so a year -- to cover expenses that don't fall under the strict scholarship guidelines. The stodgy old NCAA wouldn't go into the 21st century without a strong push, and Emmert, the public face of the membership, was willing to deliver that message.
Three years later, it may be too late.
Two weeks ago, Yahoo!'s Pat Forde detailed how withered and depleted the NCAA enforcement staff had become in the wake of mishandled investigations at Miami and (to a lesser extent) UCLA, and how the sudden exodus had created something like an open season for cheaters. That was bad enough, but last week it got worse: SI's Pete Thamel and Alexander Wolff examined at length the botched Nevin Shaprio case at Miami, and Thamel followed that up with more detail about the state of the Indianapolis office over which Emmert presides. It's not a pretty picture:
SI spoke with more than 20 current or former NCAA employees about the troubles of the NCAA enforcement staff for a lengthy story in this week's Sports Illustrated. A portrait emerged of a department battered by turnover, afraid of lawsuits and overwhelmed by scandal. One ex-enforcement official told SI, "The time is ripe to cheat. There's no policing going on."
After a wave of departures, the enforcement staff has dwindled to the point where just two staffers have experience on football or basketball cases. Thamel details a corrosive office environment in which staffers felt sold out by Emmert's response to the Miami disaster (Emmert acted shocked upon hearing the news, despite it having been known inside the NCAA office for months, and then scapegoated Julie Roe Lach, a widely respected and deeply experienced staffer). That's bad enough, because there aren't all that many people in the world both willing and capable to be an NCAA cream-cheese cop. The enforcement effort -- such a key part of Emmert's reform agenda -- is in shambles.
Far worse, though, is the impression both inside the NCAA offices and among membership that Emmert is hefty on flash and paper-thin on substance:
In many interviews with NCAA officials about enforcement, the topic quickly shifted back to the leadership of Emmert, who is known internally at the NCAA as the "King Of The Press Conference." That's not a compliment.
And then there's this:
As the NCAA moves forward, the reality of Emmert's future is tricky. "When you get to the position Mark is in right now," said another college administrator, "it's how and when you are leaving, not if."
Yep: That's a college administrator already predicting Emmert's eventual departure from NCAA leadership. How much longer until he is considered a lame duck? Are we there now?
To be fair, not all of Emmert's struggles have been his own doing. His stipend push serves as a good example: After garnering widespread support among major conference commissioners like Jim Delany and sounding like common sense to pretty much everyone else, the proposal died on the vine, voted into oblivion by hundreds of small schools worried about adding more liabilities to their athletic department balance sheets. Reforms are always hard to pipe through the NCAA's circuitous bureaucratic veins, but the speed with which this tentpole was torn down, and the relative lack of movement in the wake of that defeat, showcased just how difficult it really is to get the NCAA's membership to change.
But along with the enforcement debacle, it showed something much simpler: There is a difference between saying something and doing it. That is the fundamental disconnect of the Emmert tenure. For all of the press availabilities -- like April's hilariously overwrought Final Four performance -- there has been a massive gulf between what Emmert has promised and what he has accomplished. He set out to make NCAA enforcement the real deal. Instead, the staff is gutted. His tenure began with a historic chance at reform in the face of massive structural threats to college athletics as we know it. Instead, very little has changed.
Now dozens of former staffers are making fun of his PowerPoint presentations to the press, and the rest of us are searching for accomplishments to match the defiant rhetoric. How much longer can this go on?