Mark Emmert tried to flex his muscle. He tried to radiate confidence. He tried to push back at the countless columns—much like this one—that have pointed out his trials and tribulations over the past few months that called for change.
And although the president of the NCAA finally came out swinging while meeting the media in Atlanta before the Final Four, the attempt didn’t quite get the intended results.
In fact, it fell well short. Confidence morphed into arrogance, and despite plenty of words said and important topics discussed, we once again learned very little.
While answering questions about reform, new developments at Auburn, the aftermath at Miami, which remains an open book, the damning article on his past business and leadership failures posted by USA Today, the Freeh report and more, Emmert was visibly frustrated.
So much so, that he took multiple subtle jabs—which perhaps were an attempt at humor gone wrong—at CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd, who has stated in the past few months that the NCAA’s head honcho should step down.
Well, apparently Emmert has been paying attention.
As he walks off stage, Emmert tells @dennisdoddcbs: "I'm still here. I know you're disappointed, but here I am."— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) April 4, 2013
Much like when a standup comic tries to cope with hecklers, Emmert went out of his way to make his point. The only problem, however, was there was no heckling, no unexpected interruptions. Just anxious ears and plenty to ask.
When he wasn’t going toe-to-toe with Dodd, he was either defending his master plan that has yet to form even a hint of a blueprint or engaging in back-and-forths with other reporters taking his actions (and words) to task.
It got heated and even awkward at times, and although Emmert didn’t budge or give in, his responses didn’t provide much of anything with any sort of substance, either (via Philly.com):
The fact of the matter is that change is what we're about in the NCAA right now, and we're trying to work our way through some very, very difficult changes to make the whole notion of intercollegiate athletics strong and viable going into the second century of the NCAA and of college sport.
It’s the same tired spin you’ve heard before, regurgitated to match the current problems with the NCAA.
Insert a different word here, move around a few responses there, and answer a question without answering the question at all. Given the amount of practice and experience he has, you can see he has the non-answer answer down pat.
Although Emmert did accept some of the criticism for the various matters currently plaguing the NCAA when asked if he felt like a “lightning rod,” his response here mirrored the tone of the entire session—odd and disconnected (via Philly.com):
Some of the criticisms about change or what's going on naturally get leveled at the guy at the top. If you're going to launch a change agenda, you've got to be willing to deal with the criticism. So, OK, I deal with criticism.
He has, and he will continue to do so. When you’re the president of anything—whether it’s a company, team, league or other business requiring direction—you’ll be looked at as the potential fall guy.
When things are going well, the praise will likely go to the top, regardless of all the diligent workers who made the success possible. The resulting financial benefits will also tip greatly in the favor of those overseeing the operation.
When things go poorly, the president (or manager) is typically the one who falls on the sword, whether it was deserved or not. Not only does a change at the top bring about, well, change, it also sends a very clear message.
Emmert finds himself at this crossroad at the moment—despite the public support he has received from those capable of deciding his fate—so the timing of his strange Atlanta showing is peculiar to say the least.
Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports posed a rather simple but fascinating question while watching Emmert bomb, and those tuning in likely had a similar response.
Listening to Mark Emmert do this dance. Honest question: Is this really the best the NCAA can do in terms of leadership?— Bruce Feldman (@BFeldmanCBS) April 4, 2013
No one is demanding that Emmert be a wordsmith, a master at the podium. If progress was being made and collegiate athletics was in a better place, Emmert would have the leeway to call out all the reporters who wrote a negative thing about him, rip off his shirt, challenge them to a fight and receive ovations and praise along the way.
He could get feisty with reporters, provide the very non-answers that he did on Thursday, and we wouldn’t even bat an eye. If the ship were on the desired course, his failed Thursday standup would've been a non-issue.
The problem? His company is a complete and utter mess. The money will continue to pour in, no question, but the integrity of the NCAA is under fire and there are no solutions in sight.
If you were lacking confidence heading into his public appearance, you left with more questions and more concerns.
This was not the time to fight back, no matter the frustration that must be building from his seemingly helpless position. This was the time for answers, genuine conversation about how things can get better.
Buried beneath the comebacks, however, was more of the same. More promises that may never be met, more vague guarantees on improvement that will likely never be realized.
As he told Dodd while walking off the stage, he is indeed still here. As we continue to hear from the man with the plan, I continue to wonder why.