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Mark Emmert's 12-year legacy at NCAA: A well-paid president who couldn't lead during a time of drastic change

On Tuesday, the NCAA announced Mark Emmert would step down as its president, either once his replacement is found or by June 30, 2023.

The distant departure date allows the Association to find a new leader and Emmert to continue to receive paychecks which, considering his approximate $2.7 million annual base salary, should be around $112,500 every couple of weeks.

Emmert certainly learned long ago that when it comes to “amateur sports,” the grift never ends.

The decision was supposedly “mutual” between Emmert and the NCAA board of governors but Emmert had a contract through 2025 and there is no earthly reason why he’d agree to step aside. It’s not like anyone knew what he has been doing. He was so bad in public, he rarely appeared anywhere or said anything.

His dozen years at the helm of the organization was marked with inertia, ineffectiveness and incompetence.

Virtually every initiative Emmert attempted either failed or was pointless. His tenure was constantly behind the curve and the times. It left his organization forever on its heels and constantly losing battles in courts both legal and of public opinion.

As reform came, the NCAA fiddled, its president incapable of forging effective plans, let alone a consensus to pass such plans, on issues ranging from conference realignment, name, image and likeness, player rights, soaring costs, rampant rule-breaking, transfers and so on.

The 69-year-old will finish his term with almost no support or respect from major athletic directors or many conference officials who operate on the front lines of college sports. Most have seized the reins and tried to run things without him. Eventually even his former peers at the university presidential level — Emmert was the former campus leader at Washington and LSU — gave up.

Maybe the job was impossible. Corralling a vast and diverse association of individual institutions and guiding them through a time of turbulence certainly isn’t easy. Bless whoever tries it next.

Yet it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone who could have done it worse.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - APRIL 04: NCAA president Dr. Mark Emmert presents the championship trophy to the Kansas Jayhawks after defeating the North Carolina Tar Heels 72-69 during the 2022 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament National Championship at Caesars Superdome on April 04, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
NCAA president Dr. Mark Emmert presents the championship trophy to the Kansas Jayhawks after defeating the North Carolina Tar Heels in the men's tournament.(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington via Getty Images

Emmert was distant and disjointed. He was considered by many in college athletics as aloof and even disinterested. He was bad in front of cameras, off-putting at news conferences and stiff at ceremonies. He liked to outsource major challenges rather than roll up his sleeve and work on them himself — how many blue-ribbon committees did Condoleezza Rice chair for him?

He was prone to self-inflicted public relation disasters. In 2021, Oregon women’s basketball player Sedona Prince filmed a TikTok calling out disparities between the respective weight rooms at the men’s and women’s tournaments.

Rather than offer an immediate mea culpa and race to the women’s event to meet with Prince and others while rectifying the problem (and maybe even filming some new TikToks of him setting up a bench press), Emmert was defiant and offered professorial excuses.

It led to the NCAA being hammered for not caring about female athletes even though the organization has almost assuredly done more for women’s sports than any other entity on earth. While imperfect, creating opportunities for female athletes is one of the NCAA's shining achievements the past four decades. Yet the organization became a model for gender discrimination anyway, a brutal slap to the many hardworking and right-minded staffers and administrators in Indianapolis, many of them women.

That was Emmert. Just about everything he touched turned to dust. The simple became hard. The hard? He didn’t even attempt. He sat idly as leagues broke up, conference commissioners seized real power to run things and federal courts slapped away old and tired NCAA defenses of amateurism.

Even as radical change was clearly coming, Emmert could never muster up any kind of common sense compromise. He was a voice out of the 1970s, digging in on concepts that modern lawyers and judges ripped to shreds.

Due to foot dragging and doomed legal strategies, things as NIL arrived not by NCAA legislation but a hodgepodge of state laws that make for a chaotic situation. The NCAA has all but given up trying and Emmert has asked for federal lawmakers to save things.

What kind of business begs Congress to run it?

Emmert never could get it right. Even when his heart was in the right place, his execution lacked foresight. Early in his tenure, Emmert was rightfully outraged at the child sexual assault case involving Jerry Sandusky, a retired Penn State football assistant. Yet rather than understand the limits of the NCAA — it’s there to administrate transfers and practice limits, not criminal cases — the NCAA clumsily sought its own justice and tried to bury Penn State in scholarship sanctions. It had to later reverse course, but that set the tone for everything.

When college hoops was so overwhelmed by rule-breaking and scandal that the FBI was investigating it, a gun-shy Emmert farmed out the problem to the so-called “Commission on College Basketball” which came up with the so-called “Independent Accountability Resolution Process” which was supposed to add teeth and speed to the enforcement process. 

Instead it somehow became slower and more bureaucratically burdensome. Almost no cases have been resolved. Everything just drags.

It led to the humiliation earlier this month when, in a case that dates to 2017 and three full seasons after charging Kansas and basketball coach Bill Self with five Level I violations, Emmert had to stand on a stage as Self and KU were presented with the national title because the NCAA had yet to rule.

Meanwhile, KU’s former bag man from Adidas, Jim Gatto, sat in prison on charges that included paying former Jayhawk recruits.

Emmert was so embarrassed and nervous he congratulated the “Kansas City Jayhawks” on the title. KU cared so little about Emmert it had long ago handed over a lifetime contract to Self, even if he cheated.

If Emmert’s NCAA couldn’t catch Kansas with all the FBI’s wiretaps, what exactly could it do?

No one knows. Almost nothing ever got done. As college sports revolved and evolved across 12 years, the association in charge was stuck in the mud, led in circles by Mark Emmert, its do-nothing president.

From the start he was overwhelmed and outclassed for a tough job, but man, did being lousy at it ever pay well.

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