Targeting Highlights the Problems of the NCAA

Many thousands of words have been written about the problems with the NCAA. Most of those articles deal with issues the general public nor even the writers fully understand. Let me give you a simpler example.

The NCAA now penalizes football teams for fouls the replay official says didn't happen.

The NCAA suffers from two core problems.

The first is the lack of strong leadership. Pro sports empower strong commissioners who set the tone and at most deal with 32 owners who come from the world of business and expect their managers to identify problems early, most often before lawsuits are filed or expose articles emerge. The pro leagues rarely make decisions with an eye on today but rather based on their projections for several years down the road to grow the investment. Strong decisive moves are expected.

Intercollegiate athletics are far more reactive in nature. University presidents who make decisive unilateral decisions rarely remain presidents for long. Effective presidents are coalition and consensus builders. They have to respond to their governing board while balancing the needs and desires of faculty, students, alumni, the local community and often political figures.

Consensus to make dramatic change tends to only come in reaction to an observed threat. Until the lawsuits are filed or political or public opinion draws attention to the problems of the day (or perceived problems) consensus is rarely achieved. That means the NCAA president is chief disaster control and mitigation officer rather setting a five, ten or twenty year agenda.

In the modern instant news cycle the NCAA is reacting to crisis before facts are fleshed out to see if it actually is a crisis or worse if it isn't a crisis the membership is unable to effectively articulate why a media declared crisis isn't a crisis.

The second fundamental problem is rule-making structure built around a number of permanent committees charged with addressing specific subject matter.

In theory it makes sense, charge a group of people with some expertise to look at the subject and tweak or at times over-haul the rules in that area.

The reality is the committee's value would be in doubt if they were to regularly meet and send a report saying, "we're good, let's leave things alone again this year." Instead you get a never ending cycle of tweaks to address a handful of complaints.

If you want to understand why things like the recruiting rules are messy and hard to understand, just look at something simpler. Playing rules.

Player safety in football is why the NCAA was first created. Lately big news stories, especially blows to the head began garnering headlines and debate, though primarily focused on the NFL. The NFL response was fines for plays that after review seemed very reckless or designed to cause injury and move the point for the kickoff to create more touchbacks.

The NCAA responded as well but made the decision to change where touchbacks where placed, creating incentive to change how teams kicked off to create returns to try to pin teams inside the 25 so the number of returns weren't reduced significantly.

The other change was to beef up the sanctions for blow to the head or targeting.

Unfortunately concern about improperly disqualifying players for a targeting foul created a compromise.

Previously targeting was a 15 yard penalty and it was left to the judgment of the officials to determine that the play was so flagrant that ejection was warranted. The NCAA changed the enforcement for a violation to a 15 yard penalty AND an automatic ejection, if the foul happened both penalties were mandatory.

Concern over improperly ejecting a player lead to allowing replay review of the play. If the replay official determined that it was not a case of targeting the ejection would be over-ruled. This creates an illogical result. If the replay official rules that the targeting foul was improperly called the ejection is over-turned but the team is still assessed a 15 yard penalty despite the ruling that the foul call wasn't proper.

The standing committee concept has given us the bizarre result where the NCAA issues press releases talking about football or basketball achieving some impressive milestone indicating huge fan interest and then in the off-season the rule committee announces the latest set of ideas to make these popular sports better. If it isn't a new rule it is a new "emphasis point" which is code for "if you want to get a post-season assignment call this a lot".

Sometimes too much fixing misses the obvious solution. In the NBA they came up with fines for players "flopping" to draw a foul. There was a simpler solution. Let them flop, don't blow the whistle and see how long flopping persists when teams end up playing with four on defense.

In the NCAA we get a replay official declaring a foul didn't happen and then march off 15 yards against the team that didn't commit a foul.

If the NCAA cannot manage obvious tasks like making the rules of the game sensible how can they handle the bigger challenges the organization faces?

Oh they could breakaway but most of the problems of the NCAA come from procedures and rules adopted by the very group that the media believes should breakaway.