The NCAA isn’t just broken, it’s borderline useless. It has been paper-shredded into so many confetti strips that you can’t recognize what it was or what it’s supposed to be. It is the show poodle of bureaucracies — big hair, no substance.
The undertow of recruiting scandals, betting scandals, one-and-dones, academic hypocrisy, quick-fix prep schools, demigod coaches, weenie university presidents, bottom-line athletic directors, street agents, AAU vermin, oily parents and on-the-take players has pulled the NCAA under. Its arm floaties aren’t enough to keep it above water.
Seriously, has there been a more depressing time in college athletics than the last five years? Check that; the last five months?
Controversy surrounded the BCS Championship Game won by Auburn in January and the Final Four title won by Connecticut in April. High-profile football and basketball programs such as Auburn, Tennessee, Ohio State, USC, UConn, North Carolina and Oregon, among others, were/are the subject of investigations. Even the Fiesta Bowl was kneecapped by one of its own.
Something decisive and revolutionary needs to be done. The barbarians are at the gate and the NCAA is fighting them off with cocktail swizzle sticks.
First of all, it’s time for the organization to admit it isn’t Interpol. At times, it’s barely Paul Blart, mall cop.
There are 345 Division I basketball programs and 120 Football Bowl Subdivision programs. And somehow the reactive, not proactive, NCAA and its beleaguered investigators are supposed to monitor them all? Impossible.
The FBI, not the NCAA, uncovered an alleged basketball points-shaving scheme at the University of San Diego. Yahoo! Sports first reported the paper trail connecting Reggie Bush to improper benefits from sports agents, and later detailed recruiting violations involving the UConn basketball program.
ESPN.com moved the football forward on the Cecil Newton Shakedown Tour. And it was the U.S. attorney’s office that initially informed Ohio State of a memorabilia sell-off by a handful of OSU football players — though Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel, reported Yahoo! Sports, had been aware of the violations at least eight months earlier.
The NCAA is rarely the Marines when it comes to establishing an investigatory beachhead. It usually lands after a newspaper, TV network, website or law enforcement agency has done most of the grunt work.
In the case of the alleged points-shaving scheme at San Diego, NCAA vice president of enforcement Julie Roe Lach told the Associated Press, “[The FBI] has more tools in their toolboxes to get at what’s going on than we do.” And she’s right — the FBI has much broader powers than the NCAA.
But that still doesn’t explain why the NCAA is often behind the investigatory curve, not in front of it. A rare, impressive exception: its work on the University of North Carolina/sports agents case of a season ago. And to its credit, the NCAA was aware of the Cecil Newton allegations too.
Still, the NCAA has a decision to make. It can continue its free fall toward irrelevance or it can grow a set. Because the NCAA as we know it scares no one.
Pro agents, street agents, runners, coaches and players mock the NCAA and its bloated, often indecipherable rulebook. They have no fear of the NCAA’s enforcement staff, figuring the lag time between committing a crime and getting caught — if they get caught — is worth the risk.
It’s time for the NCAA to make a stand. Either pour real money and real resources into its investigative department (and I’m not talking about simply increasing the head count with rookie investigators), or hire an outside agency with the chops to make a difference.
There’s a line in the movie “The Untouchables,” when Sean Connery the Chicago cop asks Kevin Costner the federal agent how far he’s willing to go to catch and convict mobster Al Capone.
“I want to get Capone!” says Costner’s Eliot Ness. “I don’t know how to do it.”
“You want to know how to get Capone?” says Connery’s Jim Malone. “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! And that’s how you get Capone. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?”
The NCAA has to decide how serious it is about getting the college Capones. What is it prepared to do?
But before it fights the bad guys, it first has to restructure the way the good guys do business. The checklist:
• Blow up the rules manual. Egyptian hieroglyphics are easier to understand than full pages of NCAA bylaws. And here’s who I’d hire to rewrite it: Bob Knight, Dick Tomey, Bill Curry and C.M. Newton. That’s nearly two centuries’ worth of real-world coaching and administrative experience.
• Blow up the NCAA hypocrisy. Its members say they don’t want an FBS playoff because the season would last too long and academics would be compromised. Yet, UConn’s men’s team played half of an NBA schedule (41 games) and five UCLA players took their winter quarter final exams in a Tampa-area hotel conference room during the NCAA tournament.
• Blow up the one-and-dones. Two words: Josh Selby.
• Blow up the Academic Progress Rate (APR) and devise a better methodology to measure academic commitment. And then do as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says: Impose a postseason ban on programs whose graduation rates are tracking toward a sub-50 percent rate.
• Blow up the no-player-stipend policy.
I spoke Sunday night with a longtime head basketball coach from a major conference. He said the level of cheating, the cutting of ethical and moral corners and the compromising of academic standards has never been worse.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” he said.
I believe it. And so does the NCAA.
But the question remains: Is the NCAA is willing to fight the Capones with something more than a swizzle stick? In “Untouchables”-speak, it’s time to send the cheaters to the morgue.