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Emmert has chance to earn his higher-ed bucks

Mark Emmert, University of Washington president.

Mark Emmert Credit: University of Washington

A few weeks ago, Mark Emmert spoke about his desire for the NCAA to impose tougher penalties for violations of its rules. Thanks to the sprawling mess created by a top college football coach in Ohio, the former University of Washington president is in a position to help the NCAA deliver.

One could also say that Emmert is poised to earn the big bucks that he makes running the NCAA. But any such suggestion comes loaded with a big caution and at least one irony.

The major hesitation is that, well, despite the NCAA’s ubiquitous public presence in higher education and sports, it doesn’t make the salaries of its leaders public. Since the salary of Emmert’s predecessor was reported to have run about $1.7 million, it’s probably fair to guess Emmert, after about eight months on the job, is earning somewhere between, say, $1.5 million and $2 million.

In a PBS “Frontline” broadcast earlier this year, Emmert took considerable pains not to say a thing about his actual pay:

LOWELL BERGMAN: By the way, how much do you make as head of the NCAA?

MARK EMMERT: Well, we don’t discuss my salaries, but I’m well compensated, like many people.

LOWELL BERGMAN: More than you made at the University of Washington?

MARK EMMERT: We don’t discuss our salaries.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Well, I assume you didn’t take a step down.

MARK EMMERT: I’m welcome to argument about the relevance of that.

The challenge in front of Emmert and the NCAA is the case of Ohio State University, one of the premier football factories as well as a major institution of public higher education. The head football coach, Jim Tressel, resigned Monday (May 30) under pressure over flagrant violations of NCAA rules involving both players’ amateur status and, particularly, covering up violations. The prominence of the program and the squeaky-clean image Tressel created both pose difficulties for enforcing the rules with the kind of sanctions that, minimally, will be expected: at least two years of bans on post-season appearances plus several years of limits on the number of scholarships to be offered for football players.

On the surface, Tressel’s troubles are his own. After receiving a credible email tip about players receiving improper benefits, he apparently didn’t tell any of his bosses, and later lied to NCAA investigators. But Ohio State’s handling of the Tressel matter itself ought to raise larger questions. As an array of sports commentators have noted, the university did everything possible to avoid having to let go of the coach, taking a series of steps to contain the damage until continuing revelations made it impossible to keep him.

And that evasion went right to the top, to OSU’s president, E. Gordon Gee. That would be the same Gordon Gee who kept Emmert from ever being the nation’s No. 1 paid president of a public university. Around the time Emmert decided to leave the UW, he was reportedly receiving total compensation of more than $900,000 per year, No. 2 nationally among public institutions and a source of some outrage locally but not even close to the approximately $1.8 million Gee was receiving. Gee remained at the top of the list in rankings published earlier this year by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Gee’s tenure is now thought  to be at some risk. Even for those who don’t follow sports and higher education, Gee made it easy to understand why many think he lost sight of his primary responsibility for higher education. At a press conference earlier this year where OSU tried to quell the trouble around Tressel with a two-game suspension (later raised to a five-game ban as the uproar mounted), Gee was asked whether he had considered firing Tressel.

From an ESPN story at the time, here’s Gee’s response:

“No, are you kidding?” he said with a laugh. “Let me be very clear. I’m just hoping the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”

A joke is a joke, but this one speaks to an atmosphere where higher education leaders do, in fact, cater to the athletic department. Even if Gee is gone from Ohio State by the time the NCAA meets on the university’s violations in August, Emmert and the NCAA ought to send a signal of seriousness with unprecedented, stiff sanctions.

One of the problems for Emmert is that decisions about punishments fall to a committee, not him. But he has a powerful position from which to set an expectation of serious action. A strong NCAA stance on Ohio State would suggest that, whatever Emmert is being paid, he is doing worthy service to higher education itself, not just to the sports spectacles with which most universities choose to surround themselves.

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