DESTIN, Fla. -- Mark Emmert didn’t dodge the obvious. The man who runs the NCAA was frank when asked if college athletics have an image problem.
“Of course it does. I don’t think there’s any question about it. And we can’t pretend otherwise,” Emmert said, sitting in the lobby of the Hilton Sandestin as he attended the SEC meetings.
It was just a few days after Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel had been forced to resign. Around the SEC, the firing amid NCAA violations for Tennessee head basketball coach Bruce Pearl was still fresh.
This is also a year that has seen the Cam Newton controversy, players caught up with agents and other investigations.
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“We’ve had a number of very high-profile cases that are very disturbing coming out, and they put us in a position where with many people we may have lost the benefit of the doubt,” said Emmert, the president of the NCAA since last year. “We have to address those issues, the real ones and the perceived ones and make sure that we restore people’s confidence in the integrity of intercollegiate athletics. That’s essential.”
It may be going a bit far to say that college sports is at a crossroads. But it’s certain that a very sensitive issue has moved to the forefront: Do teams have to cheat to win?
Georgia head coach Mark Richt, under fire for his program’s recent performance, was asked this week about the perception that schools have to operate “in the gray area” to win.
“I think you can win without ...,” Richt started to say, appearing to choose his words carefully, “without you know, feeling you’ve gotta cheat. That you’ve gotta break the rules or bend the rules.
“Everybody’s human. Everybody’s gonna make mistakes. The rule book is sometimes very specific, and sometimes it’s very vague. It’s hard to sit there and never have a secondary violation. But from a gut level philosophical point of view do I think you can win by doing things right and doing things within the rules, yeah.”
Richt was hired at Georgia a decade ago. According to him, during his interview he said he asked essentially the same question of then-athletics director Vince Dooley and school president Michael Adams.
“I asked them the question: Do you think you can recruit in this league 100 percent above board and win?” Richt said. “Their answer to that was yes. I said, Good, because that’s the way we’re going to go about our business.’ ”
When Slive became SEC commissioner about a decade ago, he made one of his central goals to have every school off probation. The conference has long had a reputation for doing whatever it takes to win, especially in football. Slive was successful at first, but the past couple of years have seen the conference take some hits off the field.
But it hasn’t been limited to the SEC. The Ohio State scandal is just the latest to hit nationally, on the heels of Southern California football, an agent investigation at North Carolina and a few others.
“There’s no silver bullet,” Emmert said, when asked how to fix the NCAA’s image. “It’s gonna require a variety of things. Some of them begin with making sure we’re as clear as we can be about our rules and our policies. About what we do and why we do it.”
It also means communicating clearly about infractions, Emmert added. He feels the NCAA has work to do on its policies and procedures to show that there is teeth behind the rules.
“I describe it as a constructive fear, that coaches and athletes and administrators, boosters, everybody around the game, understands that if they violate rules and policies, that the outcome will cause them not to be able to sit and do a cost-benefit analysis to say, ‘Hey I’m gonna cheat, but even if I get caught it’ll still be worth it.’ We can’t have people making that calculus,” Emmert said. “They’ve gotta decide, ‘If I do this, there’s a reasonable probability I’ll get caught, if I do get caught it’s gonna be a bad outcome for my university and for me.’ In many cases we do have that kind of respect for the process, but in some cases we don’t. And I think we’ve gotta make sure that’s the case.”
A message could be sent by coming down harshly on Ohio State and Tennessee, two high-profile programs. The NCAA already did that last year with Southern California.
Emmert said he couldn’t discuss the cases. He did say that the coming year would involve “a good discussion” about modifying some policies, rules and “our compliance outcomes.”
Still, many coaches and athletics directors attending the SEC meetings downplayed the notion that college athletics are spiraling out of control.
Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley said he believed there was “enough oversight where it’s never going to get to the point where it’s out of control.”
Georgia AD Greg McGarity and Mississippi State head football coach Dan Mullen each pointed out that plenty of positive stories get little media attention.
But McGarity did acknowledge the obvious.
“There’s no question that it’s tough times right now for certain elements,” he said. “It’s all how you deal with it, it’s how you try to get ahead of things. That’s a challenge we have as a conference, as everyone, what do we do about it. How do we change that perception?”
Emmert, conference commissioners and everyone associated with the NCAA are asking themselves that these days.