Mark Emmert is exactly right

Official NCAA mascot J.J. Jumper is actually less efficient in his scoring than Trey Triples or Attila at the Rim.

Official NCAA mascot J.J. Jumper, a markedly less efficient scorer than Trey Triples or Relentless Rim-Attacks. (NCAA)

Speaking at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in New York yesterday, NCAA president Mark Emmert answered a question about the criticism that’s been directed his way by my ESPN colleague Jay Bilas. “I don’t like the ad hominem attacks,” Emmert said, to which Jay immediately responded: “They’re not attacks. The criticism is fair, and right on.”

As Jay himself is wont to say, reasonable people can differ on the precise point at which substantive criticism becomes an exercise in ad hominem polemic. For Emmert, that point was apparently reached earlier this year when Jay called the NCAA’s head man “an absentee president.” Personally I think that’s self-evidently an assessment of performance rather than a prejudicial slander — pallid grounds for a duel, if you ask me. 

So be it. My interest here isn’t in adjudicating between Emmert and Bilas. (Though Emmert saying he knows “more about running complex organizations” than Bilas seemed a bit much. The myth of the omnicompetent leader is alive and well.) My interest is in what we lose when we conflate the NCAA’s current president with a baseless stance the organization has held since its founding.

When Emmert says he doesn’t like ad hominem attacks, he’s indicating that there’s a guy named Mark Emmert on the one hand and an organization with a long-standing and very silly institutional myopia on the other. And he’s exactly right. If we can cure the institutional myopia, Emmert or his successor will have to fall into line.

Emmert is a spokesperson for that myopia, surely, and its most visible advocate. He is the head of the NCAA, and therefore he could give us a wondrous Nixon-to-China moment if tomorrow he came out in favor of student athletes receiving compensation from outside parties for endorsements — a state of affairs otherwise referred to as “Earth.” But even if he did that, the horns of this dilemma aren’t going to dissolve instantly and completely just because the suit in the corner office had an epiphany.

The NCAA is a constituent organization, and the members’ misbegotten elevation of amateurism into Holy Writ has been around long enough to spawn related industries, revamp athletic department org charts, and even pass real-world laws. There are 108 years of momentum behind this misconception, and Mark Emmert missed 100 of them. An ad hominem mode of address is indeed beside the point.

If it could be shown conclusively — say, in emails hacked from Emmert’s own laptop — that the NCAA president has in fact been rated by the Harvard Business School as the most effective leader ever and that he has furthermore donated thousands of dollars of his own personal treasure toward the medical care and continuing education of present and former student athletes, the contours of our current improbable situation would not be changed in the slightest. Emmert, as it happens, is a bright guy who says correct things about one-and-done (“It’s illogical to force someone to go to college when they want to do something else”), but even if he were not the cleverest of executives and even if he said incorrect things about one-and-done, we would be in the same fix.

According to its president, the NCAA’s mission is to “be an integral part of higher education and to focus on the development of our student-athletes.” I’ll buy that. I’ll buy that because there’s not even the vaguest shadow of a whisper of a hint of anything in there that would preclude Chris Davis from seizing his 15 minutes and taping a spot for Carl Gregory Ford, Disney World, or for that matter the nearest children’s hospital should he be so inclined. The NCAA’s opposition here is quite literally groundless and purely an accident of history. Don’t fret about the implications to recruiting, meet those implications head-on with patience, transparency, and diligence, knowing that wherever young adults in other fields of endeavor have signed contracts with advertisers and agents the world has somehow continued to spin.

When time travel is possible, I will first accompany Patton Oswalt as he kills George Lucas with a shovel in 1993 to prevent him from making the Star Wars prequels. Then and only then will I go back to the dawn of intercollegiate competition as a mass-market business, circa 1910, and make all those haughty Ivy League swells admit that professional football will someday become vocationally acceptable. I am convinced the result in 2013 would be a reality-congruent NCAA.

I’ll buy Emmert’s mission statement, I just wish the NCAA would as well. To repeat, if the NCAA must be doctrinaire, let it be doctrinaire on behalf of students and not on behalf of amateurs.

Note on sources: The “if it could be shown conclusively” bit was of course lifted whole from something a far better writer once said in another context entirely. I only steal from the best.