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Amid Final Four Fanfare, Harsh Words For NCAA


This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. We're finally down to college basketball's Final Four. Tonight in the Georgia Dome, the Louisville Cardinals face the Wichita State Shockers; the Michigan Wolverines square off against the Syracuse Orange. So coming up, NPR’s Mike Pesca takes a closer look at Syracuse’s zone defense.

But first, we’re going to look at the group that’s at the center of the season’s biggest sports tournament - the NCAA - because that organization has increasingly been criticized for its governance of college sports, in a year that's included the Penn State sex abuse scandals, and several others. Joe Nocera joins us now; of course, an outspoken, op-ed columnist for The New York Times. He's in Atlanta for the Final Four ,and he joins us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Joe, thanks very much for being with us.

JOE NOCERA: Thanks for having me, Scott. I guess I have been a little outspoken on the subject of the NCAA the last year or so, huh?

SIMON: I believe so. What gives you a sense that the NCAA is at a particular crisis point now?

NOCERA: Well, you could start with the Miami enforcement situation, where the NCAA had to acknowledge that it played really, really dirty trying to get information about what had happened with University of Miami football. This is the story where they got a bankruptcy lawyer to depose people who had declined to talk to the NCAA. A huge embarrassment; people - it cost people their jobs. So that's number one.

Then there's the O'Bannon litigation, which is the class-action lawsuit claiming that the NCAA deprives athletes of the rights to their own likenesses. Then there are the governance issues, where Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, increasingly looks like he's under siege. And then there's, finally, the fact that - you know, football has gone its own way; the NCAA has no control over football. And football money has led to this massive conference realignment, which the NCAA has no control of; can do nothing about except complain.

SIMON: This is, for example, when you have Boise State playing in the East, right?

NOCERA: Yes, although they did drop out of the Big East. But you have - you know, Syracuse is going to join the ACC next year, the Big East is basically blown up; you know, this massive realignment, which cannot possibly be good for college sports. It's destroying lots of great rivalries. And yet, the NCAA is sitting there twiddling its thumbs. So there is a powerful sense that Nero is fiddling while Rome is burning.

SIMON: Certainly, President Emmert had some response.

NOCERA: His essential response is that he is an agent of change, and he's trying to reform the NCAA; and that's the reason that he is getting so many brickbats hurled at him. My core belief is that he is trying to preserve a system - this amateurism - that is actually, slowly crumbling beneath him; and that the efforts to preserve this system at all costs is what's causing a lot of their problems. It's this constant attempt to put a square peg in a round hole, and it just doesn't work.

SIMON: Can I add something else to the list? Kevin Ware, of Louisville, suffered this devastating injury. He vows he'll play again; doctors say he may. But realistically, you have to wonder if his playing career is at an end. So does what happen to Kevin Ware induce top high school players now to say, look, I'm going to skip even a year of college because if I get hurt, I've got nothing to show for it?

NOCERA: Well, they can't. Under NBA rules, they have to spend at least one year in college; hence, the famous one-and-done player who goes for freshman year and then immediately leaps to the pros. The Kevin Ware incident raises this whole other issue about what kind of insurance players get; what responsibility universities, and the NCAA, have towards seriously injured players. And also, there's the fact that somebody like Kevin Ware, you know, his most productive basketball years may be now, or just past. He's never gotten compensated for it, and he loses any chance of making the millions of dollars that he might have made as a professional; and there's nothing anybody's going to do about that.

SIMON: Well, but could college basketball limp along without the NCAA? I mean, they get the job done, at some level - don't they?

NOCERA: Ah, there's two answers to that question. The first answer is that the big boys don't really need the NCAA. But the second - reason is, they do run a heck of a good tournament. You cannot come to Atlanta, as I am this week - this is the first Final Four I've ever been to; it'll probably be the last Final Four I've ever been to - and not be impressed with the way they manage this tournament. It's really a lot of fun. I went to the show practices on Friday, and sat in some of the interviews, and there's no question that the tournament itself is very exciting.

SIMON: Joe Nocera of The New York Times, joining us from Atlanta. Thanks very much for being with us.

NOCERA: Thanks for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.