As president of the NCAA, Mark Emmert has long been considered to be the lap dog of the Power Five commissioners. It’s no longer news when the Power Five commissioners tell him to “jump”, he says “how high?”
Before today, however, even the supine, feckless Emmert had the common decency to keep his mouth shut about about the FCS, a NCAA Championship that he and the NCAA Board of Chancellors ostensibly manage but frankly treat like third-class citizens.
His silence, however, was broken today, where he also showed himself to be as equally ignorant as he is unable to stick up for the athletes ostensibly under his charge.
“The FCS is a round-robin championship,” Emmert said in his interview with ESPN’s Heather Dinich, “with 20 teams participating and a full-on championship event. That’s a very different and much more challenging environment than adding one or two more games to a season with a lot of space in between.”
As anyone who has followed an FCS team in a playoff conference can tell you, the FCS is neither a round-robin championship, nor is it a postseason competition that has 20 teams participating.
Had Mark Emmert spent even a tiny bit of time watching, or caring, about FCS football, he might have been able to discover these simple facts about the championship that he and his organization are ostensibly administering.
This fundamental error highlighted a troubling interview that shows exactly how over his head he seems with the current COVID-19 crisis and shows that he isn’t fit to lead this organization at this terrible time.
“I certainly wasn’t surprised,” Emmert said of the unfolding Marlins fiasco that seems like a precursor for exactly what will happen in college football if, against the advice of every competent epidemiologist on the matter, the NCAA goes forward with college football games this fall. “It seems to me that moving teams around the country is going to be challenging. I would be shocked if as we get into fall sports in college sports that we don’t have this occur. … It’s not whether someone comes down with the virus, it’s what you do when it happens in my opinion.”
To translate, Emmert is saying that moving teams across the country is going to be challenging – without saying that that’s what he’s expecting the schools in the NCAA to do in order to contest football games. Oh, and he’s also fully expecting outbreaks to happens amongst his membership.
Will the NCAA have any role to play in what happens when a team gets an outbreak? Well, schools, maybe don’t look to the NCAA for that. Direction and guidance for “how to handle a COVID outbreak” currently isn’t available in their current guidelines for the return to sport.
“Screw you, you’re on your own” seems to be Emmert’s message on many aspects of his leagues COVID-19 response, where the NCAA has done nothing to try to stop teams from reconvening unsafely and issuing no guidance on what to do as teams return to practice. Predictably, two teams, Michigan State and Rutgers, have suspended practices due to outbreaks on their teams, and many teams have had positive tests.
Nowhere on the NCAA’s website has there been any concrete guidelines on how to practice safely, how to contest games safely, how to put fans in the seats safely, how to sell concessions safely – anything.
Thanks to national mismanagement of the COVID-19 outbreak, under Emmert’s leadership the NCAA has been a collection of medieval fiefdoms without any real guidance or any real semblance of national rules or unity on what to do. Conferences have no unified protocols on testing, fans, or even on championships. Unsurprisingly, this medieval approach has resulted in chaotic results.
In FCS, that has meant the Ivy League, Patriot League, CAA, MEAC and SWAC have elected to cancel their seasons and instead will play their seasons in the spring, possibly.
Yet the Pac 12, Big 12, Big Sky, and OVC are all going ahead with plans to have a fall football season – even though some of those states are in the middle of outbreaks with overwhelmed hospital capacity and rising death counts.
“Would it be great to have the czar of football stand up and say, ‘We’re going to play!’ or ‘We’re not going to play!’ — of course that’s great,” he told Dinich, “but that’s just unrealistic and it surely doesn’t fit college sports.”
Except that he and the NCAA board of chancellors do have that power, at least in the FCS.
The NCAA administers the FCS Championship. He and the board of Chancellors could declare tomorrow that “due to the fact that it is too challenging to move teams all across the country for a 24 team playoff at home sites through the semifinals, we will be moving the FCS championship to the spring for 2020.”
Dinich even says so in the article. “The group, which comprises mainly university presidents representing all three divisions, has the authority to cancel or postpone 22 NCAA fall championships for sports like soccer, women’s volleyball, and FCS football,” she says.
Last Friday, the NCAA Board of Governors decided to not decide on the fate of fall sports, even though they could have followed the five FCS conferences that have already chosen to cancel fall sports and consider contesting them in the spring. Ohio Valley Conference commissioner Beth DeBauche, president of the College Commissioners Association, said 27 of the 32 Division I conferences that comprise the group also sent a letter to the NCAA’s board of governors this week asking for patience in the decision-making process.
The fact that the letter was missing five signatories showed that the feelings of the NCAA’s membership were not unanimous. It stands to reason that the Ivy League and MEAC representatives, who have already suspended their fall sports, didn’t sign the letter.
But it’s never surprising or shocking that the health and well-being of the athletes are not the first priority of 27 of the 32 members of the NCAA Board of Chancellors. That’s because the FBS needs FCS teams to play in order to conduct a season. Oh, your FCS team gets a COVID outbreak because they were Georgia’s homecoming opponent and they caught the disease because a Bulldog bled on them? Screw you, you’re on your own.
I don’t think people fully realize how badly FCS has been torn asunder by Emmert’s boot-licking of the Power Five conferences.
Just today, the Big South went through with their media days for their fall, 2020 football season. Through a Zoom meeting – because gathering a media day in person would be too risky – the conference announced their preseason media poll and preseason all-Conference teams.
The problem was that two of the teams of the conference, Monmouth (NJ) and Hampton, had already declared that they have cancelled fall sports, meaning that the media for the media day were voting for teams that we already know are not going to be playing football in the fall.
This has resulted in a Fellini movie disguised as a college football offseason. As some teams are suspending its fall sports, others are scheduling new games, and pushing up the dates by a week, something that no health expert or epidemiologist has advocated for the health and welfare of football players.
(Perhaps 8 1/2 is the number of games Emmert hopes to contest in the fall before a COVID outbreak forces the season to be over. Maybe Emmert might find a spirit animal in Guido Anselmi.)
It’s sometimes difficult to remember that ostensibly all of these schools – Penn as well as Penn State, San Diego as well as San Diego State – are all competing as a part of the NCAA. These are NCAA games that are allegedly going to be be contested in the fall. The athletes would wear NCAA logos on their jerseys.
How could Emmert allow this to happen? How can he let some Division I schools barge ahead as if COVID-19 doesn’t exist, and allow others cancel or reschedule their seasons to the spring?
The answer, of course is simple – money talks, and Emmert is listening to the presidents who are members of the conferences with the most money.
Emmert could have had the NCAA come up with some more concrete rules on football competition instead of the vague, five bullet points on the website that are screaming for further clarification. He and the Board of Chancellors could have come up with a mandated testing plan and mitigation plan for fans, athletes and coaches, supported by epidemiologists and other experts. It might not have been perfect, but it could have been the focus of the debate, and it might have laid the groundwork for a sensible plan to emerge.
But that time has been squandered – and it’s not surprising that the NCAA would want to duck and hide from responsibility that is first and foremost theirs. Mandating testing might mean more schools cancel, which means players on Kennesaw State might not be available to catch COVID from a Power Five school on their homecoming. The NCAA can’t have that!
Alternatively, Emmert and the board of Chancellors could have done the right thing this past week – the thing that so many people see so clearly – and cancel the FCS Championship for fall of 2020 and reconsider having a modified one in the spring.
This could have possibly prevented several COVID outbreaks on FCS teams, because there would have been no practices. It would have offered clarity to all the schools in FCS, instead of allowing media days to proceed trying to highlight a season that doesn’t seem like it can be conducted this fall. And would have had the added benefit of being the right, moral thing to do for the health and well-being of the FCS athletes.
Instead, the sad, predictable, slow-motion disaster that Emmert and the Board of Chancellors has elected to undertake lumbers on to its inevitable conclusion – an eventually cancelled season, somebody getting seriously ill or dying, or all of the above. They will have undertaken this decision without giving a crap about the health and well-being of FCS athletes, left FCS programs twisting in the wind, and had their public face to the nation embarrass himself nationally by admitting that he neither knows nor cares how his own NCAA championship in FCS football is conducted.
Emmert’s resignation or firing will not solve all of the NCAA’s problems. But it will rid the NCAA of a national embarrassment and, whether he likes it or not, someone completely unequal to the moment of managing college sports during the COVID-19 epidemic. He might think he might slither out from being the face of mismanagement of this college sports crisis, but he’s wrong.
Maybe the next commissioner in the job might be someone who knows how many teams are in the FCS National Championship bracket. That alone would be a huge improvement over the feckless, cowardly leadership being shown today.
Chuck has been writing about Lehigh football since the dawn of the internet, or perhaps it only seems like it. He’s executive editor of the College Sports Journal and has also written a book, The Rivalry: How Two Schools Started the Most Played College Football Series.
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