As the face of the college athletics juxtaposition, the NCAA is a popular punching bag. As the face of the NCAA, its president, Mark Emmert, receives the brunt of the finger-pointing.
Largely, the NCAA invites that criticism. By botching the Miami investigation, by initially ruling BYU cross-country runner Jared Ward ineligible for participating in a recreational race, by forcing New Mexico State's basketball team to fly home overnight directly after a loss to San Diego State in the men's tournament, the NCAA asks to be lampooned.
"See what it's like to get home at 5 in the morning," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said in a postgame press conference with the NCAA logo plastered behind him. "It shouldn't happen." (H/T Matt Giles, CollegeBasketballTalk.com.)
Everything the NCAA does, it does with amateurism in mind. Yet, this is where the enterprise is right now. Even as the governing body of college athletics, it's not safe from public ridicule at its own sponsored event.
Emmert has to defend it anyway, though. With Northwestern players allowed to vote on unionizing, it's not a great time to speak on behalf of an outdated model. But, speaking to media on Sunday, Emmert maintained that reclassifying student-athletes wasn't the answer.
To be perfectly frank, the notion of using a union employee model to address the challenges that do exist in intercollegiate athletics is something that strikes most people as a grossly inappropriate solution to the problems. It would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.
Perhaps Emmert is right about the problems of unionizing. (For more information, B/R special contributor Kristi Dosh does an excellent job answering common questions HERE.) Still, the status quo needed to change years ago. As Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports writes, the NCAA failed to see the big picture, that all sports are not created equal:
NCAA president Mark Emmert repeatedly spoke Sunday of the 460,000 college athletes out there, but there is little commonality between a Division III cross country runner who is paying their own tuition and Johnny Manziel. And it's the next Johnny (or even the current Johnny seeking royalties on Texas A&M memorabilia sales that will continue for years) that is the focus of the high-priced and unyielding lawyers and labor leaders.
Because the NCAA's membership sat on its hands for too long, football players had to take drastic measures. If the membership wasn't going to act on behalf of the athletes, then where else were they supposed to turn?
Therein lies an important point of clarification: What's happening in major college sports is not Emmert's fault. He is not the problem.
The problem is what comes out of his mouth.
Emmert is the spokesperson for the membership. And the membership's intent is to use scare tactics and key phrases like "blow up," "grossly inappropriate" and other hyperbole. That is its best defense because a group of highly educated individuals can't figure out how to evolve.
To Emmert's credit, it's not like he hasn't tried. Three years ago, the idea of stipends for athletes—the common number floated around was $2,000—gained some traction. It still hasn't passed, but Emmert supported the concept.
Last year, the NCAA proposed to deregulate several ticky-tack and otherwise unenforceable recruiting rules. Again, Emmert was in favor of it. And, again, the membership tripped over itself and nothing ever became of it.
None of this would change if anyone else was in charge. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, for example, shouldn't want Emmert's job—like, ever. It's a thankless position that volunteers itself to be the pinata at Johnny Manziel's birthday party/autograph extravaganza with petting zoo.
The NCAA's issues go beyond the office of the president; they are rooted in treating all sports among all members equally, even though there's nothing equal about Alabama football and Idaho tennis. Maybe that worked in a previous time, but not now. Not when a faction within two sports—college football and men's college basketball—operates the way it does.
There's no going back and there's no sense in staying the same.
The NCAA has proposed a new governance structure that would grant the five most powerful conferences autonomy. Should that pass, it would inevitably yield to some player demands like a lifetime opportunity for undergraduate education, scholarship protection and better health benefits.
These are things that should have already been passed. Because they weren't, college athletics has reached a critical juncture. In that sense, there's some truth to the statements that sports like college football are set to change forever.
What isn't pointed out is that the change doesn't have to be doom and gloom. Major college football can be what it wants to be; non-revenue sports can be what they are.
That's not the message the NCAA wants to send. Yes, it's antiquated, but that's not Emmert's fault. He's only delivering it to the masses.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.
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