NCAA Leader’s Speech: ’32 Minutes of Nothing’

Grapevine, Tex. — “Thirty-two minutes of nothing.” That’s how Dennis Dodd, a columnist, described Mark Emmert’s comments on Thursday during his annual state-of-the-association address here at the NCAA convention.

At a time when the NCAA faces a rising number of legal disputes and questions over the appropriate use of its power, the association’s president used his pulpit to spin tangential stories about long-ago games and tell bad jokes about big-time conferences’ employing professional athletes.

Such diversion is not what I’ve come to expect from Mr. Emmert, a gifted speaker who has a knack for reading his audience. And in fairness, he did nod to some of the big challenges the association faces, including commercial distractions, coaches’ cheating, and players’ health and wellness.

But even when he raised an important issue, such as player safety, he mostly just reminded convention-goers that things used to be a whole lot worse than they are today. He would have been better off using his platform to describe how the association is preparing for the inevitable crises of tomorrow.

Nineteen college athletes died playing football in 1905, Mr. Emmert told the audience. An equivalent number today, he said, would be about 190 per year.

“You cannot argue that the games are not better and safer than when we started,” he said proudly.

That argument may offer clues to how the NCAA will respond to a likely wave of concussion complaints. But I’m sure his words will offer little solace to the athletes whose lives have been altered by head injuries, or to the many people in the room who got into this business because they love helping students.

A year ago, Mr. Emmert delivered what I described as a “spirited, forceful” pep talk to the hundreds of athletics officials gathered at the convention. “We need to clarify who’s in charge,” he said, after ticking off a series of story lines that have painted college sports in some of the worst possible ways.

Back then he was riding high, having just pushed through the first part of his reform agenda, including the allowance of a $2,000 stipend to help players cover the full cost of attending college. He was moving fast, and not worried about breaking china, as he told me for a January 2012 profile.

Then NCAA colleges overturned the $2,000 policy, a sharp setback for Mr. Emmert. In Thursday’s speech, I don’t recall any mention of that money. And although he had his customary kick in his step, striding across the stage and speaking without notes, his words lacked punch.

Last year he was unafraid to bring up the problem programs. This year he paid no attention to them, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where one of the higher-profile scandals of our time is playing out.

Mr. Emmert had the perfect opportunity. One big goal of his rules working group, whose charge is to whittle down the NCAA’s 400-plus-page manual, is to think hard about the principles by which college athletics should be governed.

As it is, the NCAA does little to regulate academic integrity, leaving that process to individual campuses. Lots of people would like to see the association assert itself more aggressively in that area, which would seem to be an essential responsibility for an enterprise that, at its heart, is supposed to be about education.

Mr. Emmert may have spent 30 or so years in higher education, but his decision to cancel the Scholarly Colloquium, which he didn’t say anything about during his presentation, did little to connect his association with the academy.

Asked in a news conference afterward why he had withdrawn financial support for the academic conference, he seemed to take umbrage at the suggestion that he was not serious about scholarship.

“At the end of the day, I’m an academic … and nobody in this room values research more than me,” he said. Saying that the association still planned to work with faculty members to look at “areas of consequence,” he added: “There are lots of subjects around which we need good, thoughtful objective research. We just need to deploy research in the most effective way to get the best return on investment we can.”

Perhaps the biggest omission in Mr. Emmert’s address was his failure to mention anything about the NCAA’s exercise of power in the Penn State scandal. It’s hard to believe that the association’s unprecedented role there—imposing a $60-million fine and four-year postseason ban in football without offering the university the opportunity for an impartial hearing—did not qualify as a moment deserving of reflection.

In the news conference, Mr. Emmert was asked if he had given any thought to updating people about Penn State. “No, not really,” he said. “There’s certainly been plenty of press coverage, and it’s been pretty well explained and explored in great detail.”

As he wrapped up his comments to convention attendees, he tried to explain the point of all those long-ago stories.

“It reminds us of where we come from and how we got where we are,” he told the audience. As the leader of the association, isn’t his job to talk more about where we’re headed?

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