When it became public knowledge that Mark Emmert would be winding down his impossibly disastrous tenure as NCAA president, one or two people suggested on Twitter – it was meant to be humorous, but still was a kind gesture – that I be among those considered to replace him.
I will confess the NCAA would be unwise to select me for the role. Because even though my track record from four decades in sports media contains plenty of proof I would put everything into doing the job as well as possible, you have my guarantee I would take that $3 million salary and retire in a year with one hell of a nest egg. You could take that to the bank, as they say.
No, the NCAA needs someone with good ideas and the willingness to stick around to see them implemented.
And it needs to listen to that person, for a change.
When Myles Brand accepted the job of NCAA president in 2002, he expressed an appreciation of the idea that athletes should be permitted to major in their sports in the same way actors, musicians and particularly dancers can leave major universities with distinguished degrees in their brand of performing arts. Two decades later, there has been no movement in higher education in this regard.
Early in his tenure as president, Emmert declared payments to athletes should be “a subject we explore.” But given the opportunity consider a settlement offer in the O’Bannon case in early 2014, the NCAA declined even to take the meeting. The NCAA lost in court, which ultimately led to NCAA members deciding they could live with “cost-of-attendance” payments to scholarship athletes. And just seven years later attorneys representing the NCAA were before the Supreme Court presenting oral arguments in the Alston case, arguing against athletes receiving additional academic compensation, such as computers or scholarships to grad school. The Supreme Court crushed the NCAA, 9-0.
The membership of the NCAA fought to maintain college athletics as it had been for more than a century. In a sense, that fight has not entirely been abandoned, as we saw this week from the Name/Image/Likeness directive the national office put forth to institutions. Precisely who is responsible for this approach, for the inability to grasp what the future might bring and the cling-to-the-past legal approach taken, is difficult to ascertain. You can be assured Emmert has not been the only problem.
The new NCAA president should be empowered to move the organization in a forward direction. The NCAA’s role as a police force always has been overemphasized; in recent decades, it constantly was being called upon by the public and media to address issues that local authorities and academic boards were better equipped to investigate and adjudicate. With the rules governing the members certain to be less oppressive, it might be desirable to return compliance issues to the conferences. Or it might just be less unwieldy for the NCAA to manage than it has been.
So what should the next NCAA president do – how should that person operate?
Even though it’s not going to be me, I’ve got ideas:
1. Emphasize the value of membership. There are some who contend it would be a wiser course for the most powerful programs to abandon the NCAA and create their own organization. All the best evidence, though, indicates that is more trouble than it’s worth.
It will be difficult for the organization as it stands to implement certain rules or types of rules. But if the Power 5 were to take just their football programs, or their entire athletic departments into a new organization perhaps organized under the umbrella of the College Football Playoff, what do they gain? They already keep all football money. The NCAA does not run the CFP and gets essentially no financial benefit from it. They already have autonomy to make most of the rules that govern their competition.
Some are bothered by constraints such scholarship limits, particularly in sports such as baseball, with its ridiculous cap of 11.7 grants per team. But the best way to manage this is use leverage to get those numbers reset, not by exiting and starting over.
Who do the Power 5 schools think is going to get sued the first time they pass a rule that runs counter to the current movement? That liability shield is the most underrated aspect of the NCAA’s appeal to members. It’s not like the next NCAA president can brag about that, because it’s essentially an invitation to more lawsuits, but it’s there.
And the most valuable element of NCAA Division I membership: participation in the men’s basketball championship, better known as March Madness or the NCAA Tournament. Those three weeks of basketball are worth $1 billion. The most powerful schools get the greatest share of that. If they want to argue for a bigger share, they might have a case. But leaving to form a new organization would cut them off entirely from that. And a Power 5-only basketball tournament would be only a fraction as popular; the NCAA Tournament has a unique, enduring appeal that a start-up event won’t match.
2. Get the NCAA out of the initial eligibility business. This is an area it never should never entered but did because members did not trust one another to assure those athletes who enrolled were qualified to do college work. There were multiple publicized cases of athletes competing at the Division I level though functionally illiterate when they entered.
The NCAA’s reaction to these scandals was an overreaction: academic minimums for prospective Division I athletes that were too reliant on standardized tests that have been, to say the least, problematic.
Here’s the thing: Virginia Tech does not tell Stanford which grad school students to admit. Pitt does not tell Iowa which candidates are worthy of its prestigious Writers Workshop. Each school makes its own decisions about whom to admit except when it comes to athletes. That’s got to change.
3. Emphasize what the organization does well. All you need to know about how well the NCAA does in the playing rules department is it’s men’s basketball committee has stood firm against the preposterous rule that allows teams to advance the ball 50 feet merely for calling timeout that’s infected the NBA and spread to FIBA and the women’s game.
The NCAA does a great job administering playing rules for the sports contested under its banner. It even is better at running such championships as the NCAA Tournament and the two College World Series. There was a massive blunder in 2021 over the inequities between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, but that was more the exception than the standard.
4. Cut down on the committees. Standard NCAA procedure anytime a significant issue develops is to appoint a committee.
That’s how it handled the issue of Name/Image/Likeness, but that group was appointed too late and delivered its conclusions too late to stay ahead of the state legislatures that were on the way to passing laws.
That’s how it dealt with the Justice Department investigation of the basketball talent game that led to four Division I assistant coaches being arrested and such powers as Arizona, Louisville and Kansas being mentioned either in charging documents or trial testimony or both.
So the NCAA brought in someone with no background in the sport and developed a massive committee, almost none of whom had worked actively in college basketball, to look at what had occurred and what might be the path forward. The work by Condoleeza Rice and her commission turned out to be a massive waste of time and resources that produced essentially no discernible improvements.
Whomever is the next NCAA president should be able to deal with such matters. Not to do the investigation or examination, but to hire people who are capable and sort through whatever conclusions are developed and decide the best course for the organization.
5. Tell everyone to chill. This is a time of massive change in college athletics. There is no escaping this. But the near-panic that occurred when one basketball player was announced as receiving an $800,000, two-year NIL deal about the same time he committed to transfer to a new school and when a football player reportedly had the opportunity to transfer and receive a $2 million NIL deal – after years of athletes being allowed to receive either no money or nothing above cost-of-attendance payments, of course there was going to be an overcorrection.
We don’t know where this will be in a year, or two. An effective leader, however, would be able to convince everyone to understand what this circumstance represents and that the best path forward is not to overreact or overregulate or abandon all the good things that have been built over more than a century.
That person will not be me.
Whoever gets that $3 million gig, though, better plan on earning it.