The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s website states that its priorities are academics, well-being, and fairness.
Following the NCAA basketball bribery scandal, will some people be asking, "Should we replace that with ‘payola, fraud, and cheating?’"
It is hard to believe that the problem of steering recruits to certain schools with the promise of money, and steering athletes to certain agents with the promise of money, is confined to the small handful of schools named in the FBI fraud and corruption charges.
And the media won’t want to believe that. The chum is in the water and the sharks are hungry.
As The New York Times put it, "College basketball has a long, baroque history of malfeasance involving under-the-table deals, but rarely, if ever, have federal investigators exposed such widespread corruption."
Another reason for the toxicity of this story is that there is no counter-narrative to it; no force pushing back on the central premise; no set of "alternative facts." It is a story going in one direction – and not a good direction – for the NCAA and anyone involved in intercollegiate sports.
This is going to get worse before it gets better. And anyone associated with NCAA D1 sports should be thinking, "What do I need to do to prepare?"
Over the years, Kith has been retained by several D1 schools, and one in particular was going through its own athletic program scandal. Here’s what we learned from that episode:
First, managing the media in such a situation is more difficult (and painful) than riding a wild bull bareback in a rodeo: completely out of control and moving faster than you can imagine.
Unfortunately, unlike in bull-riding, it’s not going to last just eight seconds. The sports media world has its own rules and echo chamber. There is no victim to protect, which makes it easier for media to pile on all the actors involved – NCAA, conferences, schools, companies, and agents. Then there’s a massive echo chamber-- more than 600 sports talk radio shows, hundreds of sports media websites and sports TV channels with 24 hours of programming to fill.
Second, by their very nature, academic institutions are complex organisms where decision-making is slow, deliberative, and very political; not the sort of environment that makes for successful bull-riding. (Though it seems Louisville is the exception, but now we see that school administration is being criticized for moving too fast.)
With that, here’s our prediction on where this is going to go:
- As we’ve already seen with the Rick Pitino action, coaches, athletic directors, NCAA officials, and maybe even university presidents will be fired or forced to resign.
- More stories will emerge, and maybe even more arrests. And it won’t be limited to men’s basketball—other NCAA sports will be brought into the rodeo arena in response to this scandal.
- "Tell-all" stories will emerge – from athletes, agents, coaches, and hangers-on—generating fodder for the sports and news networks filling hours of coverage and maybe even a few book deals.
- Ambitious producers are dreaming up "30 for 30" documentary scripts.
- Old controversies will be resurrected (Louisville, Miami, UNC, Michigan, and USC to name a few).
- Congressional committees competing against each other with hearings.
- Late-night comics with a trove of new material.
- And there will be infinite calls for reform of intercollegiate sports… unions and salaries for athletes or even the disassembly of the entire college sports infrastructure.
Any institution that is in any way associated with NCAA D1 sports should be buying extra headgear and chest pads for the ride on an enormous, angry bull.
So what does that look like?
Administrators, legal teams, communications teams, athletic departments and "friends" of the program all need to be coming together now to get aligned, and have some sense of what to do as their own internal investigations take shape and give them a sense of their own exposure. And they need to be prepared to move with speed when the bell rings.
Those already involved need to find a way to manage, or regain control of, the narrative and the agenda: find a way to make quick decisions and take prompt actions. This includes being prepared for the inevitable leaks.
The media, lawmakers, and the public won't wait for them before passing judgment. Even if their own program is shown to be squeaky clean, they at least need to be preparing their POV on what reforms are necessary in collegiate sports.
The media and the public want to believe that NCAA athletics are corrupt. The FBI just handed them that reason to believe. Welcome to the newest collegiate sport: the crisis rodeo.