- Tom Farrey, ESPN Staff Writer
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Six years ago, as happens every six years or so, a big meeting was held for a collective wringing of hands by the bespectacled chieftains who control college sports and thus can change it for the better but for decades have chosen not to do so because they're gripped with the fear that they might just lose their jobs in the process. Then-NCAA honcho Myles Brand convened that 50-member group, and the "Presidential Task Force on the Future of Division I Athletics" went to work. It produced nothing of any real value.
Now comes Mark Emmert, successor to Brand, who on Tuesday will welcome 50 or so university leaders to Indianapolis for an urgent retreat, where over two days they will begin to chart a new, presumably more cogent and less scandalous future for Division I sports. He's sounding the alarm. You may be excused for hitting the snooze button.
Walter Byers once said that real change will only come from the outside. Byers, if you recall, was the NCAA's original executive director, who from 1951 until 1987 built the organization we now know and then wrote a book in retirement explicitly repudiating the model it's based on -- the zealous pursuit of revenue in the name of "clean" competition.
So let me utter a seemingly ridiculous prediction: This one's going to be different. Emmert's tea party will matter. Fundamental change will come, with some cajoling.
Because the insiders are now outsiders.
Used to be, the only folks agitating for true reform were the disenfranchised. The faculty whistleblowers and conscientious objectors of the Drake Group. An occasional coach of mixed credibility, like Jerry Tarkanian, who was willing to invite the wrath of the NCAA enforcement arm and committee on infractions. Former college jocks who wrote books about athlete exploitation, like Rick Telander and the late Dick DeVenzio, or who started under-funded athlete advocacy groups, like Ramogi Huma. Or, well-connected groups that nonetheless sat outside the vast NCAA bureaucracy and thus could be largely ignored, like the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Sports.
This state of affairs wasn't so long ago. Last year I got a call from a source who had just attended a small, academic conference in California. He said, you wouldn't believe it, there was this former conference commissioner who declared that it's time to start letting athletes receive a cut of their jersey sales and other forms of outside income as a matter of fairness. Mike Gilleran ran the West Coast Conference for 24 years until 2008, from the John Stockton to Hank Gathers to Steve Nash to Ronny Turiaf eras. A lawyer, he was smart and well-respected. He also was very much alone in his opinion, which he had formed as a commissioner but didn't share with anyone until retirement. So we put him on camera for an "Outside the Lines" piece on Emmert, who expressed little appetite for sharing more of NCAA members' loot with athletes.
Since then, we've seen SEC commissioner Mike Slive propose to lift the value of an athletic scholarship to cover the cost of attendance (an extra $3,000 a year) and make them multi-year deals to better live up the idea of a "full ride." He also wants academic reforms that would sideline many top prospects -- a higher minimum entering core-course GPA (2.5 instead of 2.0), and freshman ineligibility for those who fall below that mark so they can focus on school. We've seen the other BCS conference commissioners line up behind Slive, who also received a text shortly after his July announcement from Emmert saying, "Great speech." It appears Mr. Emmert's thinking has evolved a bit since our piece.
If it were up to Steve Spurrier and some other coaches, they'd pay them out of their own pockets. They get it -- how would you like to walk into a home of a family living at the poverty line and take that question from a mother of a blue chipper asking if your $4 million salary and her son's $20,000-a-year scholarship constitutes a fair shake? The traditional response -- Do you know what the value of a college education is? -- doesn't wash as easily these days, with the huge broadcast contracts that are being signed.
In March, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was asked by USA Today about whether football and basketball players deserve more consideration than athletes in lesser-known sports. "The hardest thing for our association to do is treat those kids differently," he said. "But you know what? Their lives are different. They're different than the field hockey athlete. They're different than the swimmer. They're under different pressures."
The NCAA and Ohio State have spent untold sums of money investigating the sale of memorabilia to a local tattoo parlor owner who gave Terrelle Pryor and other players about $14,000 in cash and benefits. Asked why they got rid of their championship rings and other personally owned trinkets, most of them claimed financial hardship, that they or family needed the cash. Convenient, yes, but not implausible. In many cases, athletes don't come from money. As former Buckeyes receiver Ray Small told "Outside the Lines," "We all know NCAA rules, but when you need something you don't care about no rules."
Moreover, Pryor was arguably the most celebrated athlete on the most celebrated team -- college or professional -- in the state of Ohio. He's on the phone with LeBron James and Mike Vick. Of course he's going to want to shop at Saks like the lesser-known, better-paid NHL stars of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Of course he's going to drive a series of sweet loaner cars, if offered. Of course he's going to find it hard to understand why he can't get a penny for his signature when some fan is selling it on eBay for big bucks.
"It's very hard to keep these guys from being tempted by outside forces," said Andy Geiger, who left as Ohio State athletic director in 2005 and is now retired. "There's no way to stop that. They're famous guys in that community and they will get things offered to them. At the end of the day, the only check and balance is their own discipline."
Ohio State has one of, if not the largest compliance staffs in the country. It's three or four times the size of many staffs. And it couldn't stop the violations, or the lies that cost the Buckeyes their revered football coach as well as the program its sterling reputation.
And it's bad for business. That's why the BCS commissioners are now sounding like reformers. So many billions have flowed into their constituents' coffers in recent years, their model has become disconnected from that of most other schools for whom the NCAA rulebook remains a largely viable document. As stewards of massive brands tied to network and licensing cash, Slive and his peers are vulnerable to NCAA bowl bans, headlines that induce cynicism, and anti-trust lawsuits by former athletes who very well could convince judges that the NCAA doesn't have a right to sell their likenesses.
The leaders of the six BCS conferences stand above college sports as we once knew it, newly minted outsiders.
Poised to bolt if they don't get their way. Breaking away from the NCAA is an option.
The challenge for Emmert is carving a new path forward that recognizes these political realities, no easy task in an organization as byzantine as the NCAA. But it starts with the asking of a simple question, according to Geiger: "What is our mission?"
The most honest answer is: To entertain. That's the mission of all spectator sports. But the school presidents who hired Emmert last year are in no position to state as much, given the tax and other advantages of being tied to the university. They will say they are in the business of education, and they probably wish that were true.
The NCAA could go a long way to clean up college sports tomorrow with one rule change -- no special admissions for athletes. Tell athletes, you can only play for our team if you can enter college through the same door as other students, on your academic and other non-athletic credentials. OK, you were captain of your high school team, so you get a few bonus points for that. But not a free pass through admissions, courtesy of the coach.
Some of the most revealing documents that we came across in looking at Ohio State were those unrelated to the NCAA violations. They were a series of hand-written affidavits signed by Pryor, receiver DeVier Posey and running back Daniel Herron after several pairs of cleats disappeared from the locker room following a game last November. Police finally got around to interviewing the players seven months later, after each of them had been found to have sold memorabilia at the tattoo parlor. No one ended up getting charged for the missing cleats, but read their statements to police, and judge for yourself whether their spelling and grammar is that of college-level students.
The elimination of special admissions for athletes is too radical for the BCS bosses. But Slive's proposals do give Emmert tools to work with. If the NCAA lifts the standards for incoming freshmen, then commits to a full-cost scholarship for their academic careers, then Emmert could buy credibility with judges and regulators who are starting to ask whether players are being treated fairly. Last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan signaled his support for multi-year scholarships, telling me, "I think it's a valid point you hear about players -- they come in as a big recruit, then their knee gets blown out, and all of the sudden they're sort of an afterthought. I think it'd maybe not only be a four-year thing, but a five- or six-year commitment. The point is to get that degree."
Duncan seems less enamored of pay-for-play, whatever that is. As debated commonly, it's been taken to mean that schools would be asked to compensate players above the value of their scholarships. Emmert has drawn a hard line in the sand, saying that won't happen as long he's NCAA president, knowing that doing so could cause athletes to be treated as employees with all the associated costs (income taxes, worker's comp, etc.). Maybe that's how they should be regarded, as researchers such as Richard Southall of the University of North Carolina call them exalted "migrant workers" for the way some are used. But there is another way to be paid -- by outside sources including companies or individuals. That ban is harder to defend, the notion that universities have the right to prohibit compensation from non-university sources. No other students are restricted.
So let me utter a second, seemingly ridiculous prediction: It'll be OK one day for a Terrelle Pryor to sell his trinkets or signature to a memorabilia collector, or his image to a Nike or EA Sports. And college sports will survive, even thrive, just as the Olympics and tennis did when they realized strict adherence to amateurism was impeding growth.
The NCAA hasn't yet announced the salary of Emmert. But he's about to become the most underpaid executive in sports. Progress, with its potholes and promise, is the only option left for the NCAA.
Tom Farrey is a correspondent for the Enterprise Unit. He can be reached at email@example.com. Producer Justine Gubar also contributed reporting to this piece.