The NCAA should not be immune to criticism. Any organization this big and complicated is going to need frequent corrective action. But while the NCAA is not always right, neither is it always wrong, which brings us to Joe Nocera’s month-long, error-laden and questionably motivated mugging in The New York Times.
Nocera is a Times business columnist who lately has become obsessed with all things NCAA. The most recent beatdown began with a 5,000-word treatise in The New York Times Magazine in December detailing a pay-for-play plan. At the same time, Nocera wrote a misguided column about the motivations behind Division I’s consideration of an override to the proposed $2,000 miscellaneous expense allowance.
Those pieces contained factual errors, which the NCAA immediately noted to Nocera and his editors. The boldness of asking for a correction apparently angered Nocera, who responded to NCAA staff member Stacey Osburn by saying: “I’ll correct it, but you won’t like it.”
He followed up with a column saying he was mistaken; the NCAA is even worse than he thought. In so doing, he altered the traditional observation that you shouldn’t fight with those who buy ink by the barrel; apparently, you shouldn’t even respond to them.
The NCAA also agitated Nocera by noting his relationship with the communications director for one of the law firms involved in the pending “likeness” litigation against the NCAA. That person is Nocera’s fiancée, but a reader would know that only by wading 4,000 words into Nocera’s Dec. 30 article on pay-for-play.
The conflict-of-interest question was meaty enough that the Poynter Institute (journalism watchdogs) evaluated whether a problem existed. Nocera and the Times likely took comfort in the Institute’s conclusion that one did not, but a reasonable person could see it otherwise. Put another way, if a Times columnist were engaged to Barack Obama’s press secretary, would that relationship be an issue if she trashed Mitt Romney nonstop for a month?
So, where does Nocera’s crusade stand now?
For starters, Nocera has become a cyber chatterbox, blogging relentlessly on the NCAA. One blog provided parsed words and phrases on the NCAA’s Ryan Boatright eligibility announcement to position the NCAA as the most malevolent force imaginable. He also used the blog to create a contest for readers to submit the NCAA’s worst rule. In making his point, he claimed the NCAA penalized a track student-athlete for taking her baby to a meet on the road. In fact, the issue related to the school covering expenses for her boyfriend, who is the child’s father. He subsequently assailed the NCAA’s Osburn for somehow violating privacy laws by attempting to correct the record, even though she did not name any students in her response.
Yesterday, Nocera took on CBS’ Seth Davis, calling him NCAA President Mark Emmert’s “favorite lapdog reporter,” although Nocera struck through “lapdog,” whatever that means.
At what point does somebody with the power to make it stop say this has gotten out of control? The NCAA is not perfect, but there’s plenty of room between being perfect and being the goon squad that Nocera projects.
The NCAA is not alone in dealing with Nocera’s complexities. He experienced a previous conflict-of-interest episode, also involving the fiancée, that was problematic enough for a rebuke. Last August, he was forced to apologize to Tea Party members for calling them terrorists.
Again, remember that we’re talking about the New York Times, not Deadspin. These days, sadly, it’s hard to tell the difference.