The NCAA's self-inflicted wounds

Drexel's Ellen Staurowsky teaches sports management.
Drexel's Ellen Staurowsky teaches sports management.
Posted: January 28, 2013

For the NCAA, the hits keep on coming.

Last week's news wasn't about malfeasance at Penn State or some new recruiting scandal. This time, the president of the NCAA got on a conference call to talk about malfeasance within the NCAA.

The news presented by NCAA president Mark Emmert sounded like parody. The people charged with investigating a recruiting scandal at the University of Miami were themselves being investigated for allegedly paying an attorney representing the suspected Ponzi schemer accused of paying Miami players. The investigators are suspected of paying the lawyer to ask questions during a deposition that they wanted answered.

This after the NCAA skipped the standard infractions process entirely when it came to Penn State and the Sandusky scandal. You add this latest mess to earlier questions about investigators stemming from cases involving UCLA and Southern California, and the enforcement arm of college sport's national governing body, once considered merely ineffectual, now has serious legal issues.

"When I look at the number of cases that this might potentially impact - this could have an effect on how colleges operate," said Drexel sports management professor Ellen Staurowsky. "The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. the NCAA, their case I imagine improved 100-fold."

Asked why, Staurowsky said: "Part of what the commonwealth is arguing is that the decision on the part of the NCAA, in penalizing Penn State the way they did, skirted the rules of the association. With what's been revealed during the past day, they've also allegedly violated all manner of professional conduct. So I think if their enforcement mechanism lacks integrity, then their decision-making process has to be up for questioning.''

Staurowsky has her own issues, serious ones, with recent NCAA decision-making. Earlier this month, the NCAA announced it would no longer fund an annual colloquium on "multidisciplinary research on college sport," run by the Forum for the Scholarly Study of Intercollegiate Athletics. Staurowsky was the program director for this year's colloquium.

"It really had much more to do with trying to silence dissent than any kind of financial issue," Staurowsky said in a telephone interview. "I think what this is really about is an expectation that individuals who were not talking about college sports within an orchestrated, scripted dialogue were not welcome."

The schedule for this year's two-day program certainly looked like a cross-section of important issues facing college sports.

Historical roots of financial inequality within college sports.

Is a new stadium worth the cost to a university?

Assessing the economic impact of voluntary change in conference affiliation.

Athletic director pay and performance.

These weren't just discussion topics, but peer-reviewed papers written by academics.

"The NCAA is a group of colleges and universities,'' Staurowsky said. "One of the ways they are permitted to retain tax-exempt status is on their ability to say they support the mission of higher education. Academic freedom is the most foundational principle of higher education in the United States. If we lose the opportunity for open dialogue, we're doing a disservice to the American democracy. To me, these are very high stakes.''

An NCAA administrator told forum leaders that the NCAA planned to invest in more "targeted research'' called for by member colleges, citing among its reasons poor attendance at the colloquium and a failure to affect public policy.

Staurowsky isn't buying this.

"By shutting down dissent, the NCAA has really raised a question over whether they are going to be able to assert that they are supporting the mission of higher education,'' she said. "There's no turning back on this. They did it. I'm not sure people have really thought through what they did here.''

The hits keep coming. It's a little hard to present yourself as a body committed to reform - as the NCAA leadership keeps attempting to do - when people employed by the colleges you represent seem to line up on two sides. They're either questioning you, or outright slamming you.

"Last summer, when the NCAA sanctions were meted out against Penn State, one of the things I wrote about, I used the expression 'the best defense is a good offense,' " Staurowsky said. "I hypothetically raised the question, if the NCAA is coming out and charging this hard, what might they be trying to deflect attention away from?''


Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @jensenoffcampus.

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