NCAA begins work on what it hopes is a true reformation

by | CBSSports.com College Football Blogger
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INDIANAPOLIS -- It is apt in many ways for the headquarters of the NCAA to be exactly where it is.

Located in the "The Amateur Sports Capital of the World," the dark brown-bricked building is surrounded by water on two sides, located south of a university and next door to a museum. It's just a few blocks away from where the Indianapolis Colts play at Lucas Oil Stadium and has an awkwardly placed Hall of Champions feet away promoting the best and brightest from the more than 1,200 member schools.

In the grand scheme of college athletics, the building is only a collection of offices that staffers shuffle to work in every morning. But it is also representative of the problems the organization faces in the coming weeks, months and years. Like the weather outside much of the year, it is cold and desolate. Like the canal the building is surrounded by, it is detached from the public, viewed from afar. Steps from a museum, it is tantalizing close to being a relic of the past. Inside and out, it is a work in progress with the ultimate goal known only to a few (if any).

The building is expanding to accommodate additional growth while the organization inside undergoes a similar, but much more rapid, transformation to keep up with the brisk changes in college athletics.

"I'm reminded that in light of all the challenges we have now -- which are significant," says Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president for academic and membership affairs, "there was a period of time where it was just a different era."

Lennon has seen "The Association" literally and figuratively move around in his nearly 25 years with the NCAA. He worked for the Southwest Conference shortly after SMU football was hit with the death penalty, an event that sent shockwaves to schools throughout the country and one of the key turning points in college athletics. While blatant and extensive cheating that was going on then has subsided, a seemingly constant flow of negative publicity stemming from cases such as USC, North Carolina, Ohio State, Cam Newton and the Fiesta Bowl have put the need for reforms at all levels on the front burner.

"It does seem like we had a lot of things happen this past year, there's no denying that," Lennon said. "Malfeasance among parents, among students, there's been more of a spotlight on administrators. You could call it a perfect storm. There's been new leadership coming in and saying this doesn't feel right."

As athletic directors and presidents flocked to the building at 700 W. Washington St. on Thursday, the Division I Board of Directors are set to consider the most ambitious reform agenda in years, designed to improve the state of college athletics and the plight of the student-athlete. A new framework for academic progress and access to championships will be voted on, as will increased standards for transfers and incoming freshmen athletes, a "full" cost of attendance scholarship increase of up to $2,000 and possibly even multiyear scholarships. While brick and mortar are being laid outside, the foundation for member schools will be laid inside.

"I believe the presidents are committed to creating rapid change to benefit the student-athletes on their campuses. We need to take serious action now to improve the student-athlete experience and make sure our conduct aligns with our values," president Mark Emmert said on Monday. "All of these changes will happen in short order and will have a positive impact on the enterprise."

Reform in previous years at the NCAA has often been measured at a snail's pace. Slow and steady, items made their way through the clumsy legislative process before winding up in the ever-sprawling association manual -- currently 426 pages long. It led to things like bylaws 21.02.1, 21.02.2 and 21.02.3 which gave the definition of an association-wide committee, a common committee and a federated committee. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and others coming from professional sports have often lamented at how long it takes for something significant to change at the organization. But from this week until the annual NCAA convention in January, both the pace and the impact of reforms will have picked up noticeably.

"I think he's taking what [former NCAA President] Myles Brand did and taking it to the next level," Lennon said. "Mark's new focus, the enforcement piece, I think is something we probably didn't have under the previous regime. There's a commitment to rewriting the rule book in its entirety. Mark is coming at it with some bold strokes and he's very approachable with the membership too."

Move past the bullet point items about APR and scholarships and you'll find the issue that Emmert and others really are looking to fix: cheating. The SEC has submitted proposals to push 7-on-7 football competitions off college campuses while the enforcement staff has rewritten an expanded definition of an agent that they hope will be more accurate and help close loopholes. Deregulation of messages in recruiting is expected to pass as a way of allowing investigators to focus less on those driving 5 mph over the speed limit and catch those going 100 in a school zone. Establishing a culture of compliance is a top priority for Emmert and those such as vice president of enforcement Julie Roe Lach.

"That was part of the vision coming out of the Presidential Retreat, the idea that we need some reform," she said. "It's under the auspices of the idea of risk-reward, both in terms of coaches and administrators, with people saying I'll take the risk because I'm not going to get caught and if I do, the penalty is not going to be that grave. The idea is how do we address that.

"I think there will be some significant reform or change -- it will be different."

While those inside the association see the coming months as a watershed moment, others are pushing for even more. In a petition sent last week, more than 300 college football and basketball players requested a cut of TV revenues and increased scholarship money that covers all the costs of earning their degree even if they exhaust their eligibility. The National College Players Association has actively lobbied for additional players rights and revenue for over a decade. A group of college administrators led by Stanford athletics director Bob Bowlsby sent a sternly worded letter to Emmert ahead of the board meeting calling for even stronger reforms than what are being considered.

Just like in a reinstatement case, it seems that even when the NCAA is looking to do what is right, they cannot seem to win.

"People might criticize us for some decisions," spokesperson Stacey Osburn said, "But we do it for the student-athlete and we're willing to take that hit."

Like missionaries in a far off land, those at the NCAA are preaching the message to as many people who are willing to listen. The problem is they have been tuned out by many, and those at the association are slowly coming to terms with it. Nothing exemplified the state of college athletics like Tuesday afternoon. Just as press releases galore proudly proclaimed that graduation rates had reached their highest mark ever at the NCAA, developments regarding conference realignment were all everybody was talking about.

Lennon, for one, didn't think realignment would have much of an impact on what will happen this week, only that the hundreds of people walking through the front door of the headquarters building would be rolling up their sleeves and getting to work.

"I don't think you can look at the action items that are going in front of the board and not say this is a big deal. There are some big ticket items as I would describe them," he said. "We really want to identify what do we care most about at the NCAA. It's kind of hard to tell right now. It's usually thrown together and you don't know what the priority is.

"To a large extent, we've always said if the membership adopts the rules, they're all of equal importance. How do you say that is more important than that? I think we finally have some courage at the presidential level to say, 'You know what? This is more important, this is a principal of what we do.'"

This week we'll find out if more than talk comes out of Indianapolis and if they're building more than just office space.

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