INDIANAPOLIS -- Mark Emmert wouldn't discuss a possible college football playoff.
Not whether he'd like to see one.
Not whether he thinks the sport needs one.
"My personal opinion on that isn't particularly relevant," the NCAA president told us, and he never really strayed. That was disappointing. But, to his credit, Emmert was open to discussing just about anything else, both on and off the record. And so during a four-course meal spread over nearly four hours at St. Elmo Steak House here in Indianapolis on Tuesday, I -- along with eight other reporters from various national media outlets -- peppered Emmert about countless issues, and he was remarkably candid while responding.
He discussed his desire for coaches who lie to NCAA investigators to be held to the same standard as student-athletes who lie to NCAA investigators, and that can't be good news for the Tennessee basketball program. He discussed, in a conversation about Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, the possibility of changing NCAA rules so that a student-athlete pays a stiff price for a father who shops his services, though he repeatedly explained why and how the issue is complicated.
The one-and-done rule came up.
So did the role agents play in college athletics.
Yes, we touched on that, too.
And though we didn't agree on every subject or even understand each other's points of view in all cases, it was refreshing to have the opportunity to speak at length in a casual setting with the man now in charge of one of the most beleaguered organizations in sports, if not the most beleaguered. Emmert has a tough job, and he knows it. But one of the things he's actively trying to do is humanize the NCAA as much as possible, which was, in some ways, the motivation behind our invitations to Indianapolis.
"When you fail to put a face on something you allow people to say it's this amorphous bureaucracy -- this uncaring, unknowing amorphous bureaucracy," Emmert said. "That's exactly what I don't want the world to see us as."
Which brings me back to this 24-hour trip. We met with Emmert and Vice President of Communications Bob Williams on Tuesday night, met with Senior Vice President Greg Shaheen and Vice President of Enforcement Julie Roe-Lach on Wednesday morning. All told, I spent about seven hours talking with high-ranking NCAA officials. It was educational, useful and worthwhile. Multiple times, they even asked for advice or ideas that might help them do their jobs more effectively. It was proof that Emmert and everybody below Emmert understands their goal of solving the problems that plague collegiate athletics is difficult, bordering on impossible.
So they told us that they're open to suggestions.
Here's mine: Punish harshly when you catch somebody in the wrong.
That's all I ask.
Look, I know what you're up against. Your rules require prospects who are oftentimes poor, to reject improper benefits from coaches and boosters who want them at a specific university, and from agents who want to sign them at a later date. The day folks start consistently following those rules will be the same day this country wins its war on drugs, and must I remind you that there's a video on the Internet of Hannah Montana taking a bong hit? Seriously, good luck. You're going to need it. Because it's unnatural for people who want things to reject things they probably think they deserve anyway given how much money everybody else involved makes, and, either way, it's difficult to catch them when they do take things because you lack subpoena power, and because third parties don't have to talk to you at all.
For these reasons and many others, you will never "clean up" college athletics.
It's literally impossible.
You will never catch everybody.
In fact, you won't catch most people.
But when you do catch them you've got to start burying them and sending symbolic messages that serve as deterrents. Otherwise, you're sending an opposite message like the messages you sent over the past month -- first with Kansas basketball player Josh Selby, then with Newton. Against all odds, you caught both of them (or at least one of them and one of their family members) operating outside of the NCAA guidelines. You caught Selby accepting nearly $6,000 in extra benefits, and you caught Newton's father soliciting a payment for his son's services. Consequently, you suddenly had an opportunity to really make a statement. With proper guidelines in place, you could've ruled both high-profile athletes at high-profile schools permanently ineligible and showed the nation that such egregious behavior won't be tolerated. As it is, Selby, a nine-game suspension now over, will begin his season Saturday with the third-ranked Jayhawks while Newton, Heisman Trophy in hand, continues to prepare to lead the top-ranked Tigers into the BCS National Championship Game, and that can't possibly be the message you want to send.
Yes, I know the same people who investigate don't handle the punishment phase.
Yes, I know this is all more complicated than I'm making it.
But my point remains simple: You need to, one way or another, have a system in place where the punishment truly fits the crime. Why would an elite prospect who might be interested in accepting improper benefits not accept improper benefits given what happened over the past month? Why would a father who might be interested in asking a college for money not ask a college for money given what happened over the past month? Did the punishments levied discourage or encourage? Can you really look at anybody and say, "You better be careful or you might end up like Josh Selby or Cam Newton" when Josh Selby and Cam Newton are in pretty good spots right now?
Answer that last question honestly.
Then figure out a way to adjust accordingly.