• July 23, 2014

The NCAA Wades Into a War of Words

Stung by an outspoken critic, the association dishes back—and it's gotten personal

The NCAA Wades Into a War of Words 1

Mark Abramson for The Chronicle

"Last week, I described the NCAA as a cartel. Turns out, it's a Star Chamber, too," the columnist Joe Nocera has written in "The New York Times." The association has responded with similar forcefulness.

From his influential perch as a columnist for The New York Times, Joe Nocera has tangled with some of the biggest bullies in American business. He railed against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for their disastrous foray into subprime mortgages, helped take down a foreclosure giant that used dubious legal practices to evict people from their homes, and pierced holes in Apple's notorious culture of secrecy.

His newest target: the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which has faced a barrage of criticism in recent months over its perceived injustices. Mr. Nocera is the latest­—and loudest—to pile on, faulting the NCAA for, among other things, exploiting college athletes on the field while stripping them of basic rights off it. Since December, when he wrote a Times magazine article proposing a plan for paying big-time college football and basketball players, Mr. Nocera has cranked out more than 11,000 words about college sports, some weeks devoting each of his twice-weekly columns to the topic.

In acerbic, pointed language—"Last week, I described the NCAA as a cartel. Turns out, it's a Star Chamber, too"—Mr. Nocera has presented victim after victim to demonstrate what he sees as the hypocrisy of NCAA rules.

"I cannot believe an organization is allowed to do the things they do in modern America," Mr. Nocera said in a recent interview with The Chronicle. "It's as if the Constitution and rules of society don't apply to them."

The NCAA has lashed back, publishing a 2,700-word rebuttal on ncaa.org that points out reporting mistakes and dresses Mr. Nocera down for failing to "do justice" to what the association sees as a substantial conflict of interest involving his fiancée. (She is director of communications at a law firm that is peripherally involved in a class-action suit against the NCAA, a fact that Mr. Nocera disclosed when writing about the case.) The association struck again this month, complaining of the columnist's "monthlong, error-laden, and questionably motivated mugging."

"At what point does somebody with the power to make it stop say this has gotten out of control?" the NCAA's Dave Pickle recently wrote on an association blog. "The NCAA is not perfect, but there's plenty of room between being perfect and being the goon squad that Nocera projects."

As digital sources of information have exploded—and the lines among reporter, analyst, columnist, and provocateur have blurred—the NCAA has taken a harder stance against some writers. Lately those exchanges have gotten personal, with NCAA representatives referring to some journalists as "lame," "dumb," "pseudo-journos," and "bad ones."

In 2009 the NCAA hired Ronnie Ramos, a former sports editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as managing director of digital communications. Last August he wrote on Twitter: "Notice how folks like @DanWetzel and @PeteThamelNYT post false statements and then never correct them." He was referring to the Yahoo columnist Dan Wetzel and The New York Times reporter Pete Thamel, two of the most respected sportswriters in the country.

He has also called out CBSSports.com's Bryan D. Fischer ("you can't possibly be that naïve"), Fox Sports's Thayer Evans ("ever heard of reporting before writing?"), PBS News ("as usual, Frontline is wrong"), Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford ("off-base again")—and even the Colorado State University compliance officer John Infante, who has a blog on the NCAA's own Web site ("if you want to throw stones, there are other places for your blog"). After taking heat for that last line, Mr. Ramos said he was only kidding.

The NCAA has been more aggressive than many companies in pushing back against mistakes in the news media­—an approach that may not serve it well, says Elliot S. ­Schreiber, executive director of the Center for Corporate Reputation Management, at Drexel University.

"You would think an organization like the NCAA would be more amenable to cooperating and listening because it is literally a collection of universities," he says. "Rather than representing the interests of athletes, they seem more worried about maintaining control."

'Get Facts Here'

Bob Williams, the NCAA's head of communications, says correcting mistakes is necessary self-defense at a time when misinformation can spread quickly. "One thing I've known from being in this business a long time is, if you don't correct errors, in many ways they are treated as fact," he says.

He makes no apologies for the association's tone: "I don't believe I've read anything that would be considered not appropriate, at least coming from our end. I've read a lot that others have posted that I would consider inappropriate about us."

Mr. Ramos says his comments on Twitter are often a reaction to what's in front of him, rather than his purposely taking an aggressive tone. "Could I have worded one or two tweets better? Probably. Absolutely. But after 1,300 tweets, I would challenge that none of us is perfect."

Edgier language is often how people get their point across in social media, he adds. "To be completely cold and dispassionate in every single tweet—this is right, this is wrong—you lose your ability to have impact. Columnists are going to have their opinion, and we're allowed to have our opinion, too, I believe."

While some writers have appreciated the NCAA's presence on Twitter, other critics see no place for the pokes. "If one of our student-athletes went around saying things the way we are in social media, they'd be cited for misconduct," says an NCAA insider who requested anonymity because the association does not share that position.

Crisis-communication experts say the association would do better with a softer approach. "You have to get your message out, but there's a way to do it without being snide," says John F. Burness, a visiting professor of public policy at Duke University and its chief spokesman during the 2006 lacrosse scandal. "When you're as large of an organization, with the perception the NCAA has of occasionally bullying, you don't do yourself any good by coming off as a heavy."

The tactics may have helped set off Mr. Nocera and have certainly riled others. "While you've been able to get him to correct mistakes, the method only gives him more incentive to keep going," Rand Getlin, a writer with Yahoo, said in a recent Twitter message to Mr. Ramos.

Jay Bilas, an ESPN analyst who has had confrontations with the NCAA in the past in social media, came to Mr. Nocera's defense. Even if the columnist has gotten some facts wrong, Mr. Bilas said on Twitter, that doesn't invalidate his underlying positions. Then he chided the NCAA for its approach: "Respond with facts, not motive."

Mr. Ramos, though, has continued to question Mr. Nocera's intentions. "When one makes multiple major errors and has fiancée at firm suing NCAA, raising questions of motive is warranted," he tweeted on February 4. "How many errors must a columnist make and correct before his baseless vendetta is apparent to all?"

Accusations of bullying haven't deterred Mr. Nocera before. While doing reporting for an article criticizing Apple for initially failing to acknowledge the seriousness of former CEO Steve Jobs's illness, in 2008, Mr. Nocera answered his phone to find Mr. Jobs on the other end: "You think I'm an arrogant [expletive] who thinks he's above the law, and I think you're a slime bucket who gets most of his facts wrong," the Apple leader said.

After that rough introduction, Mr. Jobs revealed details of his health to Mr. Nocera that he had yet to tell shareholders, a disclosure that didn't alter the columnist's position. "You would think he'd want them to know before me," Mr. Nocera wrote. "But apparently not."

"Calling me names or pushing back doesn't really bother me. I have always felt that I get to have my say in my column, and the subjects of my columns should have the right to fire back however they see fit," Mr. Nocera told The Chronicle. "What has been striking in the case of the NCAA is how ad hominem the attacks have been, and how little interested it seems in engaging on the issue, especially the issue of whether its enforcements are unfair."

But of all the criticism it has dished out, the NCAA has hammered hardest on Mr. Nocera's errors. In a blog post about inane NCAA rules, he incorrectly reported that the University of New Hampshire had been penalized for allowing an athlete to bring her three-month-old child, who was still nursing, along on a road trip. (She was punished for allowing the child's father to come along.) A bigger gaffe was reporting that the association bars athletes from obtaining legal counsel after they have been accused of violating its rules. "I stand corrected," Mr. Nocera led off in a subsequent column.

Then he moved on to a story about Devon Ramsay, a University of North Carolina fullback who was investigated in 2010 for academic fraud. Although a university investigation turned up no wrongdoing, the NCAA came to a different conclusion. Mr. Ramsay was declared ineligible without a hearing, and only after he hired a lawyer did the NCAA reverse its decision. The association later restored the student's eligibility, Mr. Nocera wrote, but that was "after the season had ended, without ever admitting its own culpability."

"To my mind," Mr. Nocera wrote, "the fact that the NCAA is willing to destroy an athlete's career without even a nod to a fundamental right like due process is simply wrong. It needs to change."

'I'm Not Going to Stop'

As an opinion writer­—in 2007 he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for commentary—Mr. Nocera realizes that his impact may be limited. "But I hope to make enough noise pointing out the absurdity of the system that we can eliminate some of the ways athletes are abused," he told The Chronicle.

"I realize I'm fundamentally a business and financial columnist, and I can't throw everything overboard and write about the NCAA. But I plan to keep doing this for the foreseeable future."

When asked how long that might be, he said, "I plan to be doing this the next couple of years—not every column, but I think it's an important subject, and I'm not going to stop."

He doesn't expect any pushback from Times editors. "People around here are sort of stunned at how egregious this behavior is, so it hasn't been a particularly hard sell," he said. "It affects entire student populations because it differentiates kids who play and don't."

Among other topics, he plans to explore who controls the NCAA, how it makes its rules, and whether college football players come under the classic definition of employees.

As he broadens his focus, he intends to press the people in power to make change where he thinks it's needed.

"For university presidents who profess to care so much about student life, it's unbelievable how they've let the NCAA take away so many rights of people playing," he said. "I hope they stop living in fear of the NCAA and come to their senses and say, We're the ones in control. We need to change this."

After his conversation with The Chronicle, Mr. Nocera wrote back to clarify a point. "You asked me how long I was going to stay on this subject," he said. "Here's my answer: As long as it takes."

Chronicle of Higher Education

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.