Q&A: NCAA’s Mark Emmert talks about college sports scandals, USC

College football begins this week with the sport overshadowed by scandal.

Two Louisiana State players face felony charges in connection with a bar fight. A former University of Miami booster says he provided players with gifts for a decade. Jim Tressel resigned as Ohio State’s coach during the off-season, and quarterback Terrelle Pryor was suspended before turning pro. Auburn is under investigation for its recruitment of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton, now in the NFL.

As kickoff nears, The Times asked NCAA President Mark Emmert about these problems.


What specific reforms are you immediately pushing?

The situation now is utterly unacceptable. We’re moving toward changes in our academic expectations — increasing our Academic Progress Rate … so if [our standards aren’t met] the team has no postseason tournaments. By that [new] standard, seven basketball teams would not have been let in the [men’s] tournament last year. And it likely will be extended to football [for bowl games]. … It’s a serious motivation.

We’re also looking to increase grant-in-aid money to students to cover the full cost of attendance — clothing, miscellaneous costs, transportation. It’s $2,000 to $3,000 more than the current grant-in-aid. Let me emphasize: No one wants to start paying our athletes. That would do away with amateurism as we know it. … We want to look at multiyear [scholarship] awards … and cover summer school expenses. The debate we’re having now is for what sport, but I expect it will be for all sports.

We want to get the focus on the right things in the rulebook — not allowing benefits, not engaging in academic fraud.

You’ve discussed the importance of college presidents and coaches monitoring their own programs. They’re obviously struggling. How do you hold them accountable?

If a coach wants to violate a rule, that’s hard to prevent, but we will definitely hold them accountable … you’ve seen that [with the dismissal of Tennessee basketball Coach Bruce Pearl]. The presidents have to face the music with their boards, community and faculty if things go wrong. I can assure you no president wants to find themselves in those positions. What we can do is demonstrate correct practices, define the level of engagement required, so even if a president only spends 5% of his time on college sports, they know what we expect.

What percentage of college football programs are clean?

That’s inherently unanswerable. I know a number of programs and coaches, and I know the quality of those people involved — the vast majority have good integrity. Our athletes have never been better in the classroom. Our games have never been so popular. Yet, these extreme high-profile cases have created this benefit of the doubt.

Is addressing this deteriorating reputation your most important job?

Yes. The most important thing right now is for everyone in college sports to know they can no longer do a cost-benefit analysis of cheating.

Players are also under fire. An LSU quarterback [Jordan Jefferson] was allegedly involved in a bar fight. A high number of Miami players reportedly accepted gifts. Cam Newton is being probed. How do you put more teeth into disciplinary measures?

Day-to-day behavior is the domain of the coaches, the program, the university. We want to make sure that coaches hold students accountable. These things’ becoming high-profile means the coaches have to know what the expectations are.

What do you say to USC fans after you allowed Newton to play in the BCS title game, and Pryor to play in the Sugar Bowl when USC was banned from a bowl game because of something that occurred six years ago?

Every case is unique. We look at facts as different and from different distances. It’s natural to make comparisons, but I guarantee you usually don’t know all the facts we consider.

In light of what has been revealed about Ohio State, Miami and other schools, did USC’s punishment fit the crime when it basically involved one Trojan player and outsiders operating 100 miles away from Los Angeles?

We haven’t yet passed down penalties in those cases, so they can’t draw conclusions. There are still allegations we haven’t resolved.

How can the NCAA maintain credibility when a key member of its infractions committee [former Miami athletic director Paul Dee] was in office when the troubling events at Miami allegedly occurred?

The chairman [Dee] was one of nine voices on the committee. He has no more power than anyone else. We look at individual cases on their merits. What happened at Miami has no bearing on USC. I understand it doesn’t feel right. We decide cases based on the facts on the ground, and we will continue to do that.