The experience of the student-athlete at the forefront of the mind of the new NCAA president
Mark Emmert, who made an indelible mark on the University of Washington as its president, stepped away from the UW post Sept. 30. Last Tuesday, he walked into the Indianapolis offices of the National Collegiate Athletic Association as its newest president.
Late in the week, The Seattle Times caught up with Emmert in a telephone interview that addressed the myriad challenges he faces as head of the organization that governs more than 1,000 colleges and universities. In part, his take on the challenges he faces:
Seattle Times: So what’s the first week been like?
Emmert: It’s actually going well. Jam-packed, but I’m learning an awful lot really fast.
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ST: What’s the one, overarching challenge to the job you’re taking over?
Emmert: I think the biggest one is keeping everyone’s focus on the student-athletes. We’re constantly reminding ourselves this enterprise exists to shape the quality of experience the student-athletes have. There are a lot of distractions out there that tug and pull in many directions. We’ve got to maintain that focus on the student-athlete.
ST: California recently announced the elimination of several sports. In college athletics, we seem to be witnessing two trends — cutting back of programs and a facilities arms race mostly tied to football. Isn’t that an ominous divide for the future of college sports?
Emmert: I — along with Scott Woodward (UW athletic director) — made the decision to drop swimming (at the UW). We participated in budget challenges of our own. I would never describe it as an ominous divide. There’s reason to worry about the financial sustainability of a wide range of (services) in public education. I also had to eliminate over 800 jobs (with 550 layoffs) when I was there. So when you look at Berkeley, they had the second-largest number of sports of any Division I program in the country. They’re making local decisions about how to allocate resources. I suspect that will continue. We’re at a point where fiscal restraint sort of defines the social environment. That’s obviously true in your business, and education as well.
ST: Specifically, athletic finances seem to be nearing a crisis point. Now there’s an outcry over subsidies many athletic departments receive from their universities. Where is all this going?
Emmert: A couple of observations about that. First of all, if universities and colleges are appropriately integrating their athletic programs into the fabric of the university, the notion of subsidizing athletics is no more interesting than subsidizing the music school. The music school costs a lot, but most would argue the music school is an important part of the university. … The other piece of the puzzle is one of proportionality. Most Division I schools spent about 3 to 5 percent of their budget on athletics, and in many cases, that’s about the proportion of the student body that participates. The UW (athletic) budget is about 2 to 3 percent of the total budget. It’s really a matter of balance.
ST: A radical idea: Should we just pay football players and require little or nothing of them academically, since they’re largely responsible for income?
Emmert: Not as long as I’m around. I think it’s really inappropriate to consider them employees. They’re not employees, they’re students. We need to recognize we have high academic aspirations and expectations of them.
ST: On a more limited scale, would pay for college athletes, even a nominal amount like $200 a month, be something you’d like to see?
Emmert: There is an ongoing conversation about the nature of the student grants-in-aid and the desirability in some people’s minds of having a full grant-in-aid that wouldn’t be pay or compensation, but would potentially expand the grant-in-aid a little bit. Look across all of Division I, for example, and most of the grants-in-aid are a couple of thousand dollars short of the full cost of attendance of the institution.
ST: Scott Woodward said recently in USA Today he thinks we might see “radical change” in your administration with regards to enforcement against the major NCAA rule-breakers. Is that in the works?
Emmert: I am going to be focused on those issues, yes, I certainly will. Will we see radical change? I doubt that, but we’re certainly going to see some change. We’d also like to find ways of rewarding positive behavior.
ST: Regarding enforcement, the Reggie Bush penalties at USC brought a familiar resolution: Student-athletes left behind pay the price, while the perpetrator goes free. Any potential remedy for that?
Emmert: The NCAA is limited in its jurisdiction. We don’t have the legal authority or subpoena power outside the realm of intercollegiate athletics. That’s certainly a limitation we have to live with. The reality is, we hold universities as the responsible institutions in these issues.
ST: You told me once that you think a college-football playoff is “inevitable” and that you’d like to be one having helped shaped that. Is your new platform a place you might do that?
Emmert: Probably not. When I said that, I was a university president, and that was the right place for it to be shaped. This is an issue the presidents need to work on. They need to have the discussions at their level. I’ve said a number of times, if they want to move in that direction, I’m more than happy to engage in that conversation.
ST: The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is going to 68 teams. Is another expansion inevitable, and how soon?
Emmert: I don’t see anything in the near future. We obviously haven’t played a tournament with the 68 yet, to see how it all works. I think it will be exciting. Let the future bring what it may. I’m very pleased with the structure we have now.
ST: Myles Brand (late NCAA president) became known for overseeing academic reform. When you walk out of the NCAA offices for the last time, what’s the one thing you’d like to have accomplished as your legacy?
Emmert: I’d hope that we have created a culture across intercollegiate athletics where the focus is on the whole well-being of the student-athletes — making sure academic success is embedded in the culture, and making sure they have a high-quality experience.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org