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NCAA president Mark Emmert said Monday that most Americans can agree on one thing: Major college sports is broken, and the people in charge might not be the right ones to fix it.

A recent NCAA-commissioned poll, Emmert said, found widespread distrust in both the NCAA and its schools, with 79 percent of Americans agreeing that major colleges put money ahead of the interests of athletes.

“I can’t think of anything right now that 79 percent of Americans would agree on, but they agreed on that,” Emmert said. More than half of Americans agreed the NCAA was part of the problem, not a solution, Emmert said, and nearly 70 percent felt the same way about schools.

“Those are numbers that should cause us a lot of anxiety,” Emmert told the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an advocacy group that examines major college sports.

In one of his first public appearances since the arrests of 10 men – including four assistant coaches and an Adidas executive – as part of an ongoing FBI investigation into the shadow economy surrounding major college basketball, Emmert re-stated Monday what he said in a news release earlier this month: College basketball is in need of significant change. Emmert said the specifics are up to a committee, led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, that the NCAA formed in response to the FBI investigation.

“We cannot go into the next basketball season without seeing fundamental change with the way college basketball is operating,” Emmert said. “We need to act. We need to demonstrate that we are, in fact, capable of resolving these issues.”

The coaches arrested face charges of taking bribes to steer college players to preferred financial advisors and agents. The Adidas executive is charged with arranging bribes, with the assistance of other coaches, to direct high school recruits to Adidas-sponsored schools. When they announced the charges in late September, prosecutors emphasized that more arrests could come.

“I don’t know anything about the investigation that you don’t know,” Emmert said. “Whether it’s the tip of the iceberg or it’s the whole iceberg doesn’t really matter. It’s disgusting as it is, and we’ve got to recognize that we own that.”

Emmert seemed most supportive of some kind of change that would end the practice of players leaving after their freshmen year to play in the NBA. High school players projected as likely “one-and-dones” – able to leap to the NBA after just one season in college – are more likely to be at the center of backroom deals between coaches, agents, and shoe company executives.

“Only in America do we force someone to go to a university in order to pursue a professional sports career,” Emmert said. “Nobody else does that. Nobody else would even think that’s rational.”
 
Before the NBA instituted an age limit of 19 in 2006, teenagers could go straight from high school into the NBA draft. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said he’s interested in changing the rule, and potentially raising the age limit to 20, while the NCAA could impose its own rule requiring players to stay a minimum of two years.

Emmert said other areas that Rice’s commission will examine include the relationships between schools and apparel companies, and the relationships between schools and the independent basketball leagues, some sponsored by apparel companies, that long have been suspected of complicity in backroom deals to send star teenagers to preferred colleges and agents.

Emmert touched briefly on the NCAA Committee on Infractions’ recent decision to spare the University of North Carolina any significant punishment for running academically deficient “paper courses” taken by thousands of students, many of them athletes, for nearly two decades. Emmert implied support for the decision – which found the classes weren’t an unfair benefit for athletes because regular students could take them as well – while noting the ruling was another public relations hit for the NCAA.

“We can all agree or disagree on whether the Committee on Infractions made the right choice ... a very small portion of Americans believe that that was the right decision,” Emmert said.

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