In the absence of the Trump administration, Mark Emmert apparently is making a run at the vacant title of master of the self-aggrandizing suck-up. At a sports conference this week in Las Vegas, the NCAA president said, “Being a university president is the hardest job in America.”
Since Emmert once was one, at the University of Washington, and is now employed by similar people to run their sports shop, his remark comes in late but strong in the 2021 voting. I am eager to hear the exit-poll responses from the jobless-single-parent-with-three-kids demographic.
Aside from that bit of tone-deaf witlessness, Emmert did have something revealing to say about the current state of big time football.
According to an ESPN story, Emmert said relations between leagues and individuals are “worse today” than at any time during his 11-year tenure. He said it’s a problem for the industry when powerful people are “(criticizing) each other in public and private.”
Emmert was primarily talking about the disruption that followed the surprise announcement in July that Big 12 Conference stalwarts Texas and Oklahoma were leaving for the Southeastern Conference in the next few years. The two schools somehow kept the negotiations secret from other athletics directors and conferences, and jeez, are they chapped. They don’t want to be left off the ESPN-driven agenda for an NFL-style super-conference.
The disclosure set off a cascade of consequences that made worse an already chaotic business and administrative scene after the arrival of outside money for use of players’ names, images and likenesses (NIL), as well as the transfer portal.
A report Thursday from 247 Sports said about 1,000 players have signed up for the portal, about seven percent of the FBS football cohort.
“When you have these kinds of moves, it disrupts a lot,” Emmert said. “The NCAA and everything in higher education functions through self-regulation. There is no Ministry of Education or Ministry of Sport. The schools regulate each other. Sports is just another example of that. That is utterly dependent upon collegiality, cooperation and trust.
“If you can’t self-regulate an environment on collegiality and trust and good communications, you’ve got a big problem.”
With that transparent, candid remark, Emmert nearly redeemed his toughest-job clank.
For a long time, the NCAA had set up its cartel as a sort of gentlemen’s club shielded by the patina of higher education, as opposed to the Latin American drug cartels, which offer no pretenses.
The NCAA drug was free labor from aspiring young men, whose work was sold to the TV networks for massive amounts of money that helped fund the extravagant lifestyles of the top coaches and administrators. That reached another apex (or nadir) this week with the poaching by the University of Miami of Oregon coach Mario Cristobal. Media reports say his deal is $80 million over 10 years, plus another $28 million to buy out his Ducks contract and pay off the fired Hurricanes coach, Manny Diaz, and his staff.
Miami out-Niked Nike, if that is possible.
As Emmert pointed out, the system had been surviving for decades on the principle of self-regulation, because the universities’ entertainment departments were in loose confederation with similar purpose of exploiting union-free youth labor, not organized in the manner of the professional sports leagues’ for-profit business model set against players unions.
But the threat of unregulated NIL money, at the time of exponential increases in rights fees for perhaps the last form of content that can still draw big audiences for broadcast/cable TV, has launched the disintegration of the college-sports business model.
The NCAA is busily re-writing its constitution to address the loss of control to the conferences, while begging Congress for federal intervention to create rules for national governance.
Somehow, Emmert thinks there’s a chance for college sports to be less cutthroat.
“Working together on all these issues, including what we’re doing now to reconstitute that, especially the Division I structure, people have to set aside some personal anxieties and frustrations and look at the common interest of the enterprise,” he said. “We’ll get there, but it’s going to take time.”
It seems already too late.
A group of University of Texas boosters announced Monday an NIL fund that will blindly give Longhorns offensive linemen on scholarship $50,000 a year per man to perform charity work for yet-to-be-disclosed charities. The plan violates numerous guidelines the NCAA set out for NIL in July, including identifying specific recipients. But who is going to enforce those guidelines by national football letter of intent day Wednesday? No one.
Also beyond the NCAA’s control is a new wrinkle — NIL for high school athletes, and younger.
In a guest column for Sportico’s JohnWallStreet column, Prof. Rick Burton of Syracuse University and the faculty athletic rep, writes that the end of amateurism rules in college means there is no longer any eligibility jeopardy for younger athletes earning NIL money. Wrote Burton:
While contemporary children no longer mow lawns or babysit, there are many monetizing their funny videos on social media, or earning income playing Madden 21 or NBA 2K on Twitch. This generation is already cashing in — as are, we can assume, the doting parents who drive them around. In other words, Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule means some children have developed compensable skill sets.
That brings us to 2021. Athletic children are now potential golden geese. We can put them on the nest and ask them to produce.
For the most ruthless colleges, like UT, that means getting boosters to subscribe extravagantly to social media channels of talented seventh graders in order to bond with parents desperate for cash, in exchange for showing love to burnt orange. Directing the NIL cash to the right kid means sending college assistant coaches to middle-school playfields and gyms, with numerous complications. As Burton wrote:
. . . recognize that the right to earn NIL dollars could be a two-sided coin of possibility and regret. Good if a “baller” can leverage their economic freedom but bad if the young athletes don’t hold up their end of the agreement or get cheated/exploited by greedy adults.
While it’s true that the potential problems are beyond the NCAA’s grasp, the direct beneficiaries of the abruptly changed sports world are university athletic departments.
If you think the University of Washington, or any top-tier sports school, is above this smarminess and prefers to champion Emmert’s desire for collegiality, keep in mind that that the worst place to be when a dam breaks, is behind.