Mark Emmert Lives for Your Hate
Ahead of the NCAA president's Aspen Institute grill session, it's important to understand his functional role in college sports.
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By Daniel Libit and Luke Cyphers
Next Tuesday, Mark Emmert is slated to take part in an on-stage interview at an Aspen Institute symposium on college athlete pay in Washington, D.C., an event that is spoiling to be just the latest chance for the NCAA president to be owned ; ripped; slammed; compared to Warden Norton in Shawshank Redemption; compared to Jimmy Conway freaking his shit after the Lufthansa heist; compared to the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles; or otherwise meted out for cyber-bloodlust.
Emmert’s inquisitor will be Jon Solomon, currently the editorial director of Aspen’s Sport & Society Program, who, as a former CBS Sports and Birmingham News reporter, has been one of the more incisive Emmert chroniclers over the years.
Throughout Emmert’s near-decade reign atop the NCAA, he doesn’t often voluntarily submit to tough questioning from the likes of Jon Solomon, preferring to either speechify or play pattycake with the likes of Seth Davis. When Emmert has ventured into the lions’ dens, he typically does so at a time of existential crisis for the NCAA. And it usually concludes with a collective, national eye roll.
Such was the case in April 2014, when Emmert went on Dan Patrick’s radio show amidst the latest flare-up over college athlete compensation rights.
“Why are you doing a media tour, Mark? Let me start there,” an irascible Patrick asked Emmert, by way of welcoming him on-air.
Over the next 18 minutes, Patrick hectored Emmert about college sports’ ethically and intellectually unsustainable positions on amateurism, refusing to let Emmert slide with his typical array of derailments and dodge tactics. The exchange culminated with Patrick burying the NCAA boss on the point of how much actual value Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M provided for one another. For a few triumphant seconds, Emmert was rendered speechless, a moment that was promptly anointed by the Twittersphere into the Annals of Pwnage.
Almost exactly a year before, Emmert found himself in a similarly contentious back-and-forth with the media during a press conference at the Final Four. This time, however, Emmert was the irascible one, having entered the fray already under personal siege. USA Today had just published a multi-part series looking into Emmert’s pre-NCAA past, identifying, among other ignominy, his central role in a scandal-ridden, billion-dollar construction project at the University of Connecticut, which Emmert presided over while chancellor of that school.
“The case fits a pattern for Emmert,” the paper reported. “Rightly or wrongly, he has a history of dodging blame in scandals that have festered on his campuses, sometimes moving on to a more lucrative job before their full extent becomes known.”
Meanwhile, the NCAA was scrambling to deal with the accumulating fallout from the Nevin Shapiro scandal at Miami, the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit and the lingering fan and political outcry over the organization’s response to the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State.
Arriving at the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta, with his back up against it, Emmert scrapped with then-New York Times opinion columnist Joe Nocera — who had been writing a number of pieces critical about the college sports establishment — and snarked at CBSSports.com reporter Dennis Dodd, who had prophesied Emmert’s downfall.
“I know you’re disappointed…but I’m still here,” Emmert huffed at Dodd at the conclusion of the presser, as he took leave of the podium.
As Andy Glockner, then of Sports Illustrated, described the occasion:
There probably were valid points buried somewhere in NCAA president Mark Emmert's 16-minute, over 2,500-word opening statement/monologue/filibuster here at the annual Final Four press conference, but the biggest takeaway from the 45-minute session was the embattled president's aggressive defensiveness.
SB Nation’s Jason Kirk, in compiling blue-check Twitter’s reaction to the display, gave it a coarser reckoning: “And it was one long, sonorous fart noise, the frustrated display of a man growing aware he's on his way off of the highest perch he'll ever reach.”
This is how Emmert Agonistes usually goes down: with the NCAA boss invigorating the schadenfreude of the masses and reporters calling for, or forecasting, his impending doom. One should bet on some similar upshot next Tuesday, when Emmert takes the stage in D.C.
The previous time Emmert appeared at Aspen, in 2016, he caused a stir by announcing the NCAA's intention to clamp down on an Olympic exception in its rules, which allowed University of Texas swimmer Joseph Schooling to pocket $740,000 from his gold-medal performance in Rio de Janeiro earlier that year.
Covering Emmert’s remarks at the time for CBSSports.com, Jon Solomon wrote:
In all my years of covering NCAA topics, Emmert's remarks Thursday about Olympians struck a tone with my readers more than almost any issue I can remember. When I tweeted a quick summary of Emmert's comments, readers overwhelmingly flooded me with disgust for the NCAA.
The problem with this performative ritual is not that it unfairly maligns Emmert, who has done plenty to deserve the scorn, but that it confuses both the problem of college sports and the breadth of its culpability. Frankly, it misses an essential component of Emmert’s job and the NCAA’s function: to take the heat, so others don’t have to.
And it works.
Even some of journalism’s more august college sports critics are prone to fall into this psycho-rhetorical trap. Columnizing in June, shortly before California passed its seminal college athlete endorsement legislation, the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins put the enterprise’s regressive stance entirely at the feet of Emmert, whom she alternately derided as “Lord High of the Carillon Towers,” the “High Grace of The Citadel of Amateurism”, and the “High Guardian of the Pure Bastion.”
It was a well-written rip job, no doubt, but one that fundamentally miscast Emmert’s position in maintaining college sports’ status quo. A common defense Emmert defaults to when pressed about the ethics of amateurism — but which also happens to be true — is that the NCAA represents the collective interests of its member institutions. If the leaders of those institutions wanted to dramatically improve the system of college sports, they could. They haven’t.
Now, by no means are we against calling out plutocrats who feather their downy beds by propagating morally dubious claims: just last month, we investigated the soul of Tom McMillen, the former congressman who now runs the FBS athletic director trade association, LEAD1. McMillen earns $500,000 annually to do the bidding of shamateurism’s overlords; in 2017, Emmert netted $2.9 million in salary toward the same end. That alone, buys him a lot of wrath, and Emmert’s done plenty else to incur more. To wit:
Upon accepting the job at the University of Washington, Emmert waited for the president’s mansion to undergo a $540,000 remodel before he deigned to take up residence.
During the 2008 financial crisis, Emmert refused to take any salary reduction at UW, even though other state university presidents did.
Emmert’s wife made a big to-do about cancelling her Seattle Times subscription after the paper published an op-ed calling her husband’s salary, the second highest among university presidents in the country, into question.
After he became NCAA president, Emmert once reportedly showed up at the Kentucky Derby, at the invitation of the state’s governor, flanked by bodyguards.
According to the book, Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA, coauthored by Nocera and Ben Strauss, Emmert drove a Porsche with the vanity license plate, “Boxster.” When asked by the authors about his luxury ride, Emmert tried to downplay it by saying, “I’ve got friends with SUVs that cost more than my car.”
So yes, Emmert has displayed all the self-righteousness, self-indulgence and peevishness of someone aspiring to be the most reviled head of an American non-profit. And yes, it’s rather tempting to join in the pile-on (we’ve indulged a bit ourselves, and reserve the right to do so in the future).
Just so long as we remember: Emmert is but a cog in a massive, oily machine, which dates all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency.
Consider the cagey statement the NCAA came out with on Oct. 29, in announcing its board of governor’s unanimous vote allowing athletes to make money from their name, image and likeness, “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.”
Well, do you know who came up with the Orwellian term “collegiate model”? No, not Emmert, but his rather professorial predecessor, Myles Brand.
"To me, Brand is the guy who made the NCAA the commercial entity it is today, much more than Emmert,” says Nocera, who now writes for Bloomberg. “He was just smoother than Emmert and knew how to cloak his commercial desire in philosophical terms. But there is no question that Brand is the one under whom the explosion of commercialism took place.”
At the start of his NCAA tenure, Emmert self-identified as a reformer. He dinged the organization over its nitpicking enforcement and pledged to do away with college sports’s “picayune, largely irrelevant, largely unenforceable” rules.
Now, since the beginning of his Indianapolis posting, Emmert has been steadfastly opposed to college athletes ever getting paid. But it’s instructive to recall that one of Emmert’s first big reform proposals was to allow universities to give each of their scholarship athletes a $2,000 annual stipend.
“[O]ne of the problems is that student athletes now put in, you know, 30 to 40 hours a week, and in some cases, they do it nine and even 12 months out of the year,” Emmert told NPR in 2011. “The increase in the size of our scholarship funds, the $2,000 we were talking about, is at least, in part, a recognition that it is much harder for student athletes to have a part-time job.”
What happened to that proposal?
It was ultimately shot down by university presidents and athletic directors who insisted that they would have to cut Olympic sports programs to fund the stipends. You know, that old song.
At the same time, Emmert pushed an even more radical reform, requiring that men’s basketball programs meet academic performance requirements to compete in the NCAA Tournament. As introduced, the standards would have disqualified that year’s men’s basketball champion, Connecticut, from participating. The proposal similarly flopped in the face of member institution opposition.
One of the most salient criticisms of the NCAA is how it disproportionately punishes schools for things that shouldn’t actually matter to civil society, like players getting free tattoos, as compared to the things that should — like systemic cover-up of sexual assault cases.
Last year, two days after Larry Nassar’s criminal sentencing, The Athletic reported that the NCAA had dragged its feet on investigating numerous sexual assault allegations at Michigan State, after Emmert had personally known of them for years. According to the story, Kathy Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, wrote a letter to Emmert back in 2010, alerting him to more than three dozen alleged allegations of sexual assault involving MSU athletes.
“He met with me, which was great, and I appreciated that,” Redmond told The Athletic. “But the governing board has an awful lot of power. … It’s a strange setup. You do kind of get the fox guarding the hen house mentality. You do feel like the NCAA doesn’t like to do investigations, because they like their relationships (with university officials and conferences). I think Mark Emmert came in with the right tone but quickly realized, ‘There’s not a lot I can do here.’”
In the case of Penn State, the NCAA and Emmert were criticized for trying to do too much. A month after Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 charges of sexual abuse, the NCAA slammed the university with penalties that included a $60 million fine, a four-year bowl ban, major athletic scholarship reductions, and the nullification of 112 football victories under head coach Joe Paterno. The penalties were almost entirely rolled back two years later, following a Pennsylvania state senator’s lawsuit against the NCAA. But in gleefully celebrating Emmert’s bungled attempt to kneecap a college football power, the commentariat also revealed how little interest it has for the NCAA assert itself on anything beyond picayune rules violations.
Sure enough, at a 2015 press conference, in which he cast the overturned sanctions against Penn State as an illegal power grab by the NCAA, Pennsylvania state Sen. Jack Corman called for Emmert to be canned.
"If they review it carefully,” Corman said, “they will come to the conclusion that there's a culture problem at the NCAA, and if they truly believe in their core values in their mission statement ... they will determine that Mark Emmert is no longer a credible person to lead this organization.”
Not only did Emmert not lose his job, he got another $500,000 a year.
“The NCAA is the judge, jury and executioner and punching bag,” says Richard Southall, executive director of the College Sport Research Institute. “The universities can always complain about the NCAA being heavy-handed and have the criticism of them deflected. That is what happened with the Sandusky situation.”
What if Emmert had been fired in 2011? Or 2012? Or 2013? Or 2015?
“Nothing changes,” argues Southall.
“His function is really to herd the thousand cats that are the NCAA schools,” says Nocera. “With all the chaos that surrounds the NCAA, he has lost most of his power.”
Even with his recent salary boost, Emmert’s annual compensation would still barely crack the top-50 for college football coaches and it’s bested by the annual earnings of four conference commissioners. There are lots of other people, vested in the way things are, who need to answer for it.
None of this is mentioned to defend Mark Emmert or cast him as an unwitting scapegoat — please, no — but to clarify his role. He is neither a lord, nor an emperor, nor a king. He is, as presently employed, the closest thing to a minister of propaganda.
“And he is bad at it,” says Nocera. “You could certainly see someone more charismatic, smoother, somebody who knew how to make it more palatable and was able to give the NCAA more leeway.”
Do you really want that?
Daniel Libit and Luke Cyphers, coeditors of The Intercollegiate, write Newsletter of Intent each week. You can reach them with questions, comments, tips and Emmert analogies at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Featured photo by Laurence Genon/The Aspen Institute
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