INDIANAPOLIS — I think they mean it this time.
AP Photo/Michael ConroyMark Emmert plans to enact major change in the upcoming weeks and months.
I believe the NCAA is serious about substantive change. I believe the governing body of college sports is tired of being mocked for the heft of its rulebook, ridiculed for its byzantine enforcement process and jeered for its oft-oxymoronic term, “student-athlete.” I believe the NCAA is truly motivated to disassociate itself from government, lawyers, the media and reality TV on the list of Most Criticized American Institutions.
I believe all that after listening to NCAA president Mark Emmert, several university presidents and a couple of conference commissioners describe their two-day retreat here. The language was strong.
“Best exchange I’ve ever been in,” said Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe.
“They came in locked and loaded,” said Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager.
“A lot of things have reached a boiling point,” said Penn State president Graham Spanier.
“It’s time for tough love in intercollegiate athletics,” said UC-Riverside president Tim White.
Great soundbites, all of it.
Now they just have to turn sound into action.
As I said, I believe they will. I know college administration has a long and dubious history of soaring oration followed by maddening stagnation, and the NCAA is no exception. In fact, it’s among the leading perpetrators.
But this feels different.
For starters, the NCAA Board of Directors is scheduled to start voting on measures as soon as Thursday. That’s not October, or January, or some other time down the road in the foggy future. That’s tomorrow.
The general thinking is that we spend too much time worrying about the $1.95 stuff when there’s bigger issues. [Cheaters] robbed the bank, and [the NCAA] is talking about them running three stoplights on the way home.
” — Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager
South Florida president Judy Genshaft said she will lead discussion Thursday on raising the Academic Progress Rate from 925 to 930 — with the potential penalty for failing to make that score being a ban from NCAA championships. If a five-point increase in the APR doesn’t sound like a lot, consider: Defending men’s basketball national champion Connecticut scored a 930 in the most recent calculations. The Huskies would barely have gotten into the NCAA tournament if that rule had been in place last season.
So there is an urgency and an immediacy to the proceedings. That’s good. But there also is a specificity.
In concert with Emmert and talking points laid out in recent weeks by major-conference commissioners, university presidents came to Indy with a defined agenda. They weren’t here to wring their hands over the general state of college sports, they came here to change what they don’t like.
They want to do right by the athletes. Thus you will see a movement to cover the full cost of attendance in their scholarships, and a movement to make scholarships more lasting than one-year contracts between school and player.
They want students who don’t embarrass the schools they represent. Thus you will see a push for increased minimum academic entrance credentials.
They want an enforcement staff that does not major in minors. Thus you will see a charge to streamline the rulebook and let someone else worry about phone calls and T-shirts.
“The general thinking is that we spend too much time worrying about the $1.95 stuff when there’s bigger issues,” Yeager said. “[Cheaters] robbed the bank, and [the NCAA] is talking about them running three stoplights on the way home.”
And they want a Committee on Infractions that is unafraid to drop the hammer on the bank robbers. Thus you will see an effort to introduce more severe penalties for major rules violators.
“Coaches, athletes and boosters should be afraid now if they’re going to go out and break rules,” Spanier said. “Because people are tired of that.”
Among the NCAA-related things people are tired of is a penalty process that is impossible to comprehend and seems to fluctuate on the whims of the Committee on Infractions members.
That’s why it was heartening to hear Emmert say that the NCAA membership will explore something akin to “sentencing guidelines.” In other words: If you’re guilty of X crime, you can expect X penalty; if you’re guilty of Y crime, you can expect Y penalty.
That would certainly beat the current model, which seems based on a Forrest Gump aphorism. COI rulings are like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get. Or whether the chair of the committee will be able to explain it in the slightest.
So it’s clear that locking a bunch of smart people in a room for two days has yielded a lot of smart ideas. And a lot of optimism.
“President Emmert and his staff were excellently prepared and provided great information,” Beebe said. “And then the presidents and the rest of us spoke our minds. I think there’s a huge appetite to address these areas.”
Now they just have to turn the battleship in the bathtub. And fast, before momentum is lost and cynicism prevails again.
It won’t be easy — but I like the NCAA’s chances of enacting real reform. America’s sporting dartboard is sick of being stabbed, and it just might mean business this time.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
Follow Pat Forde on Twitter: @espn4d