Commentary

NCAA retreat to tackle three main topics

Originally Published: August 9, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

On the surface, it looks like just another dog-and-pony show, a bureaucratic tap dance at which much will be discussed and little accomplished.

But those who have been invited to the NCAA presidential retreat and the man who is hosting it insist that won't be the case.

When 54 university presidents and a cross-section of athletic administrators and conference commissioners gather Tuesday and Wednesday in Indianapolis, the goal won't be merely to discuss college athletics reform.

[+] EnlargeEmmert
AP Photo/David J. PhillipNCAA president Mark Emmert says a lot is riding on the presidential call to arms he is hosting this week.

It will be to make reform happen.

"I don't want to be melodramatic, but this meeting is very important," NCAA president Mark Emmert told ESPN.com on the eve of the retreat. "We do have serious challenges, and we do need to make some serious reforms. I don't think there is any debate about that. I want us to be able to build a consensus around those things that are most important for the NCAA to pay attention to and then address those things quickly."

This group in and of itself doesn't have the authority to enact legislation. But because of the power brokers involved -- especially the university presidents -- any recommendations and endorsements it makes will carry serious weight and likely fly up the NCAA flagpole a lot faster than the typical tortoise pace. Some suggestions, in fact, could be brought before the NCAA board of directors as soon as Thursday.

"I would say if we don't make significant movement, we will have failed," said Jo Potuto, the faculty athletic representative at Nebraska and former chair of the committee on infractions. "If we don't come away from this meeting with some sort of model for change, it will be a disaster."

As with most things in life, the impetus for change comes in part from reaching the abyss. A gathering like this has been on Emmert's radar for some time, but this past year -- the NCAA's nadir -- has brought plenty of converts to his call to arms.

Big-name coaches have lost their jobs, and big-name universities have been rocked by ongoing scandal.

Mixed in with the anger at the alleged rulebreakers has been an equal frustration with how those alleged rulebreakers have -- or, more to the point, have not -- been punished. Toss in escalating television contracts and coaches' salaries, and you have a groundswell of people wondering what in the world the NCAA is really all about.

Out of the rubble, the usually fractured and self-serving NCAA membership has finally reached a consensus: What the NCAA is really about needs to be redefined and the broken system needs serious repair.

"There are episodes every year like the ones we've seen this year," said Penn State president Graham Spanier, who will attend the retreat. "But it becomes almost an accumulation of frustrations. There have always been several of us who have had this level of frustration, but now I believe it's a majority of university presidents. I just think a number of us have gotten fed up."

SEC commissioner Mike Slive sounded the gong on the most glaring among the NCAA's current issues at his conference's media day last month. The rest of the big six commissioners fell in lockstep with his message at their own ensuing media gatherings.

Slive and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, two of the most outspoken and powerful commissioners, were puzzling omissions on the retreat invite list, but the topics the two have preached about will be a major part of the conversation.

Emmert said he wants this retreat to be an open discussion, but the key points he wants to address are similar to the key points the commissioners have discussed: academic standards, integrity and what he calls financial sustainability.

Specifically, here's what's on the docket:

Academic standards: There is a strong push to raise the required GPA from 2.0 to 2.5 for incoming freshmen.

"Since the standard test score was eliminated [and partnered with a sliding scale with GPA], you're finding more grade inflation," Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe said. "We need to set the bar higher."

The NCAA already is considering one dramatic change: allowing partial qualifiers to receive their full scholarships and be able to practice -- but not compete -- with their team for one academic year.

It's not a new idea. It used to be called Prop 48.

"We've already had a lot of work go into issues of academic progress," Emmert said. "That's something we could deal with very quickly."

[+] EnlargeNCAA Logo
G Fiume/Getty ImagesWill the NCAA soon simplify its rulebook? There are plenty of advocates who are making that push.

Integrity: Emmert has been outspoken in his hope that the NCAA will get tougher on its rulebreakers and he will find little resistance. But plenty of people also think that the bloated NCAA rulebook is at times its own worst enemy. There is a serious call to deregulate the rulebook, to eliminate the less serious offenses in favor of concentrating on the bigger ones.

"We're busy catching the jaywalkers as they walk into the bank while someone is taking the vault out back," Beebe said. "We need to reform our legislation, reduce the amount of more trivial things and concentrate on the ones that really make a difference."

Potuto, whose job it once was to interpret those rules as part of the COI, agrees.

"We have a group of violations that are somewhere in the middle; they aren't secondary and they aren't really putting anyone at a competitive advantage," she said. "Yet we shoot ourselves in the foot because a lot of them have to be reported as major violations. We need to talk about what really matters. The NCAA should be a leaner, meaner machine."

Financial sustainability: No surprise that the money issue could be the most complicated.

Money is the great separator when it comes to the NCAA, with some schools having it in bulk and other scrimping for pennies. What works for one group can't or won't for another.

The current push is to find a way to close the small gap on a full scholarship and the actual cost of attendance at a university for an athlete.

But even the cost of attendance can be tricky. What is easy and affordable for the major conference with deep-pocketed football revenues is difficult and financially strangling to those without that money.

The issue then is how to allow for cost of attendance without further widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

"It would be nice if there was a recognition that there have been no perfect solutions since Adam and Eve," Potuto said. "No matter what policy decision you make, there will be consequences that some people don't like. But I think we need to keep the main objective in focus here, and that's how do we get where we want to get with the least amount of impact."

In essence, that's what this entire retreat will be about -- finding a common ground among a group of people who frankly have little besides job title in common. All of those invited are technically involved in college athletics. But college athletics as defined for Bernie Machen, the president of the University of Florida, and college athletics as defined for Penelope Kyle, the president at Radford University, are not necessarily one and the same.

Finding consensus among all the NCAA constituents -- from presidents to coaches and from big schools to small -- has been the organization's biggest stumbling block.

That's what makes the mission for this meeting so critical and so difficult.

"We are responsible for our own situation," Emmert said. "We need to make sure we have the will to fix what we can fix and make progress."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

Dana O'Neil | email

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