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NCAA Leadership Continues Weak Stance On Off-Field Violence

NCAA needs a very serious discussion led by Mark Emmert to establish the role and responsibility of the NCAA, individual universities, and the individual athletes in holding all accountable when dealing in matters of both lapses of judgment and criminal misconduct.

Jamie Squire

Turn on ESPN, Fox Sports, or local talk radio. Or CNN. Or John Stewart. Or John Oliver. Or, if you really hate yourself, check out last night's cold open to the 40th season of SNL. What you'll find is that anyone with a platform is attempting to make sense of what is happening off the field and scarring our beloved football. The hot takes keep coming and the record keeps spinning because, as the charges pile up, it seems no one knows what to do when the physically elite who are groomed for violence prey on the women and children in their lives.

"At least now we're having the Conversation."

Maybe. But are we really having the Conversation? Because I know what the conversation isn't. It's not a discussion of varying accounts of an incident in an Atlantic City elevator. It's not a discussion of who saw what video and when. It's not a discussion of Charles Barkley hitting his kid. It's not a conversation about PR disasters, financial implications, and legal access to surveillance videos. And it's definitely not a hard stance reprimanding an athlete for standing on a table in the cafeteria shouting obscenities at lunch.

But we use these talking points to fill airwaves because the Conversation is uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable because of the inherent nature of domestic and sexual violence, but also because regardless of how you frame it, the Conversation is about accountability.

It is about personal accountability for those in a position of physical power, and what they do to their sons, daughters, girlfriends, and intoxicated acquaintances in fraternity houses. But it's also about holding those in institutional power accountable, particularly at the collegiate level, where administrators are charged with overseeing young men as they transition from human to warrior and back to human each weekend in the Fall.

As coaches and administrators, it is a lot simpler to let the accountability stop at the individual level. A lot more comfortable, too. But without taking responsibility for the players' actions, the universities and the NCAA are never going to bring about change.

"So, what does a discussion about accountability look like?"

Once again, I can tell you what a conversation about accountability doesn't look like.

NCAA President (and de facto sports commissioner) Mark Emmert was kind enough to weigh in on the state of domestic violence and sexual abuse in the sport of football. His response? "Not my problem."

In regards to handling disciplinary issues, here is Emmert's take:

"Most universities understand that's a reflection of the university. Universities have a lot more at stake in holding students accountable for their behavior," Emmert said. "I wouldn't say it's done right all the time but it is done right most of the time"

The university's athlete made a mistake. They'll deal with it. Not my problem.

Getting it "done right most of the time" may be an acceptable rate of success when dealing in lapses of judgment. Example? Notre Dame academic cheating scandals. Players cheat. Notre Dame kicks the cheaters off the team. Notre Dame receives applause. Move on.

I'm fine with Emmert keeping his nose out of university business when academic eligibility is all that's at stake. But is this the correct approach when dealing with sexual assault? Domestic violence? Take for example the alleged assault of St. Mary's student Lizzy Seeberg by several Notre Dame football players - an incident that resulted in Seeberg taking her own life.

Or the assault of a Vanderbilt student that ultimately led to four players' dismissal from the team. A case that was mired in a "who knew what when" mishandling of the situation. When the stakes are no longer trivial, when the physical safety and the lives of young people are at risk, such a flippant code of conduct is appalling and offensive.

The Conversation that needs to be had looks something like this: Mark Emmert believes the role of the NCAA is limited to establishing eligibility guidelines. If this is so, what role and responsibility should be placed on the university in governing the activities of its athletes. If Emmert is incorrect, and the NCAA should set a guideline for conduct, what role do the universities and the NCAA then take in enforcement? Is "misconduct" limited to legal convictions? What about 'conduct detrimental to the program'?

Avoiding any universal guidelines and encouraging universities to establish their own disciplinary policies for athletes does two things. First, it allows Emmert to preemptively shift responsibility for the increasing number of off field physical assaults to the universities. I see this as an attempt to avoid the potential public relations nightmare the NFL and Roger Goodell find themselves in the midst of.

Secondly, it opens the door for coaches and administrations to pick and choose how both the players and those in positions of leadership will be held accountable for their athletes' conduct. At Florida State, multiple lapses of judgment by star football players, such as quarterback Jameis Winston, result in missed game time, but not a dismissal from the team.

At the University of Texas, policies are much stricter. First year Head Coach Charlie Strong dismissed his ninth player this past week since taking over at Texas. Reasons for player dismissals range from team rules violations to pending assault charges. If anyone has incentive to keep his roster whole, it's Strong as he attempts to revive the floundering Longhorns. Yet Strong is sacrificing talent and potential wins to cultivate an environment that gives his program the best chance to remain free of criminal activity off the field.

The University of Florida administration has made the same sacrifice. It has become clear that the Gators are going to continue to make running a clean program the priority, placing winning second. These programs have had the Conversation, and have made the uncomfortable choice that lapses in judgment are enough to preclude athletes from playing on the team.

This mismatched approach will not change the culture of college football. If the NCAA has any intention of looking out for its athletes, and the people that surround them, it's time to ask whether or not the policies of Strong and Florida Head Coach Will Muschamp ought to be implemented across the board.

As I write this, Strong is meeting with Roger Goodell to discuss his "core values," and what teaching young people about respect for others looks like. Call me crazy, but if the NFL thinks meeting with Strong is a good idea, maybe Mark Emmert should schedule a meeting of his own.