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Wrestling with the Leviathian: Nocera laces up the gloves for heavyweight NCAA battle

Those who have crusaded for truth and justice in the media over the years have always been met with resistance. Sometimes, that pushback has been limited to a difference of opinion. On other occasions, there has been real anger and even legal challenges. And in rare instances, violence has been involved. You can bet, however, that those who take on the big boys will always get some sort of fight.

Last week’s Poynter Institute breakdown of the NCAA’s “conflict of interest” charges against New York Times writer Joe Nocera illustrates that point well. Nocera has decided to go after the collegiate organization in print for its treatment of the athletes it purports to represent, and his target has assailed him – predictably. You can’t blame the NCAA for its actions. Nocera is cutting to the crux of the argument against the governing body: that it has only the interests of its member institutions at heart. And he’s not the only one taking aim. In last October’s Atlantic, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Taylor Branch, who has covered a wide range of topics, turned his attention to the NCAA in an incendiary piece entitled “The Shame of College Sports.”

The NCAA is quite a ripe target for scrutiny, but its response to Nocera’s work – which includes a pair of columns and a long piece in the New York Times Magazine — demonstrates exactly how swiftly and aggressively it will fight back to defend itself. In the case of Nocera, it began by pointing out a couple of factual inaccuracies, which had little impact. But when the NCAA claimed that Nocera had a major conflict of interest regarding the organization, the gloves were definitely off.

It turns out that Nocera’s fiancée is the director of communications at a law firm that is representing former NCAA athletes in what could be a landmark lawsuit against the governing body over control of their – and future athletes’ – likenesses in video games and other profitable pursuits by member institutions. The NCAA argued that since Nocera’s fiancée could profit from a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, Nocera cannot be objective.

It was a clever tactical maneuver by the NCAA, but it was off base. Nocera’s fiancée has no connection to the case and therefore won’t make a dime if the law firm – Boies, Schiller and Flexner – triumphs. Since Nocera was involved in another conflict of interest question a couple years ago, involving Hewlett-Packard’s hiring of a new CEO and the law firm’s involvement in the transaction, the NCAA felt it had sturdy ground from which to launch its claim. (Nocera claimed at the time that he was unaware of the conflict and admitted he should have checked before writing.)

In this instance, both Nocera and the Times assert that there is no conflict. Because his fiancée does not stand to profit, Nocera is in the clear. The NCAA may not like to hear that, but it’s true. That hardly means the organization will let up. It is being challenged – Nocera has referred to it as a cartel and has vowed to continue writing about it – so it will fight back. Now, The New York Times is hardly a dinky weekly paper without clout. Nocera has some heavy hitters in his corner, should this devolve into a slugfest. But the NCAA is under fire from many different directions at this point, and it appears ready to fight back on each front, the better to maintain its power and influence in the world of college athletics.

That’s why it’s trying to create doubt about Nocera’s motives. Certainly, the NCAA reasons, he must have something beyond the truth driving him; otherwise he wouldn’t be attacking such an august institution. By insinuating that his fiancée could realize a windfall from the lawsuit, the NCAA is trying to get readers to consider Nocera’s point of view tainted and him unethical. That would make his words less powerful and his assertions seem self-serving.

This is what happens when writers take on big targets. The targets fire back. The NCAA is showing its muscles much the same way it is fighting the lawsuit over the use of players’ rights. That battle took an interesting twist last week when legendary basketball players Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson joined the fray and asked the court to force the NCAA to turn over broadcast contracts with ESPN and FOX (among others), the better to see how much schools are making in return for networks’ being allowed to broadcast the exploits of young athletes. The NCAA argued that since games played between schools are news events, it’s impossible provide a portion of the broadcast rights fees to those making the news, anymore than it would make sense to send a piece of the pie to politicians, soldiers or anyone else who is covered. The difference is that NBC doesn’t pay the U.S. military to cover its operations or send a check to Congress when it airs speeches. ESPN and FOX definitely pay the SEC and Pac-12 Conferences to show their games.

That lawsuit has many more turns to take and won’t likely be resolved for years. Nocera, however, will continue firing at the NCAA in the short run, as he has vowed. Like anyone who is going after big quarry, he must be ready for return fire. The best thing to do is make sure he has his facts straight and add another layer of skin to his hide.

Make that two layers. Looks like the NCAA means business.

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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