Spate of issues wounds NCAA's authority
By Bob Cohn
Published: Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 10:40 p.m.
The NCAA has been dealing with some problems and issues lately, and Sonny Vaccaro won't even pretend to hide his feelings. He is a happy man.
“I've been waiting for 35 years for them to stub their toe,” said the Trafford native, who clashed with the organization while helping drive the big-money, big-marketing era of college sports via shoe contracts, all-star tournaments and basketball camps.
Lawsuits and embarrassing missteps have made this an especially challenging time for the ruling body of college athletics while strengthening the cases of its adversaries. One of them, Ramogi Huma, who heads the advocate National College Players Association, said, “This is a significant moment in college sports. The NCAA is under fire in so many different aspects.”
Now retired, Vaccaro is consulting on a lawsuit against the NCAA (among others) that might blow up the concept of amateurism and change college sports. He also continues to preach against “the most fraudulent organization that ever lived.”
Others use similar words. Among points of contention (as the critics see it) are the billions of dollars generated by big-time football and basketball, none of it going to the athletes; heavy-handed, autocratic enforcement procedures and denial of due process; a compromised academic mission; and a lack of a comprehensive concussion policy.
In January, the NCAA passed 25 rules reforms to help streamline its supersized manual. Four days later the story became a footnote when president Mark Emmert admitted that one of his lawyers investigating the University of Miami football program acted unethically to collect evidence.
Calling it a “shocking affair,” Emmert said he was “deeply disappointed and frustrated and even angry.”
For the NCAA, which did not respond to a request for comment, this seemed like an unprecedented apology. For critics such as Vaccaro, it was a gift from the sporting gods. Other than joyous events involving his family, “the greatest thing in my lifetime is when they finally got exposed in Miami,” he said.
Specifically exposed was “how unethical the ethics police, aka the NCAA, has conducted itself,” said Huma, a former UCLA linebacker, who added that the episode illustrates “the fall of NCAA legitimacy.”
That was just the latest piece of bad news. In November, a defamation suit by former USC football assistant Todd McNair, fired in the wake of sanctions in the Reggie Bush case, gained traction when a judge ruled that the NCAA acted with “malicious” intent against McNair. That confirmed a viewpoint shared by many.
“They are not good people,” said Rick Johnson, a Cleveland-based lawyer who beat the NCAA in court and has since proposed major reforms. “They do not have good intentions.”
Also in November, it was reported that the NCAA told former Hurricanes players they would be considered guilty if they failed to cooperate with the investigation. Then there was the fellow seated on a commuter plane in August who was overheard saying that his girlfriend, an NCAA lawyer, told him that UCLA basketball player Shabazz Muhammad was guilty of violations. This was before the investigation was completed.
Muhammad was, in fact, ruled ineligible, but when the story broke in January he immediately was reinstated, the lawyer fired and the NCAA's motives again questioned.
David Ridpath, an assistant professor of sports administration at Ohio University and a former coach and athletic director, calls the NCAA an “antiquated institution.” Johnson labels the NCAA the “51st state” and the “billion-dollar bully.”
Johnson's first brush with the NCAA came when he won the reinstatement of Oklahoma State pitcher Andy Oliver, who was suspended prior to the 2008 postseason for having an attorney present during negotiations with a big league club. Oliver, now with the Pirates, also received a $750,000 settlement.
An ethics lawyer by trade, Johnson said that was only the time an athlete has gone to court with the NCAA, much less won. “The legal system is stacked up against these kids,” he said.
Vaccaro, whose first Dapper Dan Roundball Classic at Civic Arena in 1965 fueled the rise of high school all-star games and summer showcase camps (including his own), helped start a class-action suit in 2009 by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon.
Later, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and other ex-athletes joined in. The suit, at first, was simply about using players' images in video games. It now includes live TV broadcasts, and a judge in January allowed the suit to proceed. Billions of dollars are at stake.
“That's for all the marbles,” Johnson said.
Along with the O'Bannon case, other lawsuits remain active or have been filed recently, including Gov. Tom Corbett's anti-trust suit regarding the sanctions against Penn State. Although some have derided the suit as political posturing, the case further accentuates the loud and continuing argument over the NCAA's use of power. The NCAA also is facing a class-action lawsuit over its concussion policies.
“I think the NCAA is being subjected to a level of public scrutiny we have not had before in terms of magnitude and in terms of gaining greater insight into what's going on,” said Drexel University sports management professor Ellen Staurowsky, a former college coach and athletic director.
“(The lawsuits) have begun to unlock some of the documents that allow us all to have a greater insight into the way business is being done,” she said. “We're beginning to appreciate what this corporate college sports business is all about. ... This is really a pattern of behavior.”
The wide range of media has allowed for more coverage and examination, notably Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch's 2011 exhaustive and searing indictment in The Atlantic magazine. Former NCAA president Cedric Dempsey said the NCAA has become a magnet for attention because of the “increased commercialization” of big-time college sports — ballooning coaches' salaries and TV deals, conference realignment and other seven-figured money matters.
What has occurred, said Staurowsky, is “an evaporation of the NCAA mystique.” Which, she said, “has sustained some serious damage and may not be able to recover.”
But to what end? Staurowsky said college sports as we know it might “self-destruct,” leaving a handful of so-called super conferences to pick up the pieces. Regardless, she said, “I think there would be some soul-cleansing.”
Huma acknowledged that the fans who fill the stadiums and otherwise doggedly follow their teams might be hard to win over. He did, however, note the anger displayed by followers of Penn State, USC and others who believe the NCAA has wronged their programs.
“In the media, the courts and legislatively, that's where we'll see the change,” he said.
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @BCohn_Trib.
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