Feb. 18, 2013
STANFORD, Calif. -
Recently, Mark Emmert, the fifth President of the NCAA, visited Stanford University and met informally with Bernard Muir, the Jaquish & Kenninger Director of Athletics. Afterward, Emmert, who previously served as president of the University of Washington, and chancellor at Louisiana State University, sat down with Mark Soltau of Stanford Athletics for an exclusive interview to discuss the state of college athletics, the challenges going forward, new policies to improve the student-athlete experience, new ways to keep all institutions accountable, and the biggest misconceptions about the NCAA.
Q: What role do you see Stanford University playing in higher education?
A: First of all, even though I am president of the NCAA, I still look at most of these issues through the lens of a university president. I spent 30 years on campuses, so that’s kind of how I think about things.
Stanford has always brought to higher education that academic competitiveness at the very highest level. So one of the fun things about Stanford Athletics is that they bring the highest level of athletics and the highest level academically, and there’s literally no one else in the country that does that. The Ivys are the Ivys. They have their own model of college sport. But their competitor outside of the northeast is Stanford.
Stanford is a somewhat bigger institution and has much more of a West Coast feel — I’m a West Coast guy — I like that. It has competition in sport at the highest level, so it becomes sort of a bell cow for a lot of institutions. This is what you can do collectively. You can achieve this high of performance in the classroom, in the laboratory, on the court, on the field … nobody else does that like they do.
Q: You spend more than 60 percent of your time traveling around the country meeting with college and university presidents, athletic directors, coaches, and student-athletes. Do you ever use Stanford Athletics as a model or example?
A: I do all the time, and I think everyone does. There are some things about Stanford that are genuinely unique. The financial supporters have been so incredibly good to the institution. Very few places can do that. But on the other hand, everything else Stanford does, everyone could emulate if they chose to. They could have that same approach to student-athlete expectations in the classroom and still say, ‘Yeah, winning is a core value here. We like to win. Winning is important. It’s not tangential; it’s part of the core value. You’re going to win in the classroom and you’re going to win on the court. And we’re not going to cut corners.’ And that’s exactly the kind of message we all try to deliver every day.
Q: What do you see as the NCAA’s biggest challenge(s) going forward?
A: The NCAA is at least two brands: it’s the brand of championships—we run 89 championships—people love them. They include March Madness, the iconic sporting event in America in many ways. The flip side of that coin is our other brand, which is a regulatory role. We have to have the regulatory role in order to have the championship role. If you’re going to have everybody competing fairly, openly, and honestly, then you also have to be able to regulate it and set standards. People often just think of one and not the other, and they have to realize that we have to pull off both of those things simultaneously.
The challenge on the regulatory side is, first of all, getting our rules focused on things that really matter. Over the decades, our rules have accumulated a lot of largely irrelevant, unenforceable, or illogical and inconsistent rules. So right now, we’re going through and re-writing the rulebook with the members. The membership is led by a group I put together from across the country and is going in and re-writing the rulebook and throwing out the things that are largely non-essential and focusing on those core things that we all know we have to agree on if we’re going to have fairness.
Our student-athletes have to be successful students. They have to achieve academically as well as athletically. They are not employees of the university and are not being paid to do what they do; they don’t have unfair or improper benefits being provided to them. Those are the issues that people care about. They don’t really care if someone is using a cellphone or text messaging. We’ve had all these silly rules that we’re shoving out.
We changed our enforcement model this last October to a model that also focuses on those things that are real threats to integrity (and not the nonsensical things on the side) and stiffens the penalties for violations of those core integrity issues. This last year, we increased our academic expectations, not just of individuals, but also of whole teams. So if you’re going to participate in postseason play now or any of our tournaments, you have to have a team on track to have a 50 percent graduation rate. At Stanford, that’s a non-issue. But for some schools, that’s a floor that they haven’t been hitting. So there will be a lot of schools this year that won’t participate in NCAA tournaments because they’re not performing in the classroom. That sends all the right messages. There are some big-name programs that will not play in the men’s basketball tournament.
Q: How much has the NCAA had to adapt to social media and today’s student-athlete?
A: First of all, one of the challenges we face is getting people to understand who the NCAA is, and how many student-athletes are involved. So it’s now 450,000 students who play NCAA sports in Divisions I, II, and III. The vast majority of those — 98 percent of them — no one will ever see on TV. They’ll never even think about participating in professional athletics. They’ll never go to a high-budget bowl game or high-budget basketball tournament. So when people look at what they think is the NCAA, they see a handful of teams on Saturday playing football—let’s say 50. And they see another 50 or 75 playing men’s basketball games during the season. That becomes the microcosm that people think of when they think of NCAA sports. They don’t have in mind those other 450,000 kids that are out there playing.
The world for those 450,000 kids hasn’t changed a lot. It’s not nearly as different. For those under the spotlight, it’s changed dramatically. One of the things that I’m really glad of as a middle-aged baby boomer now is that when I was 18, 19, and 20, somebody wasn’t following me around with a flip phone or a camera, taking a picture and recording everything I did, because I probably would be embarrassed by some of it. Today, there’s no anonymity. They don’t catch that break. There’s no margin of error. They send out a silly note to a friend, and all of a sudden it’s on the Internet everywhere. Someone clicks a picture of them doing something dumb, and boom, it’s everywhere. You’ve got competitors from other schools trying to portray their competitors in a bad light. You’ve got all of that that makes their life more challenging in a lot of ways.
Congruously, it makes sport more popular. People love to follow their teams, their coaches, and their athletes on social media and the Internet. It’s provided really inexpensive access to a lot of sports they couldn’t follow before. It’s got its upside and its downside, and we try very hard to make it work well for the students.
Q: Do you foresee a day when college athletes will receive money to compete?
A: I sure hope it never becomes a reality because I think it would unequivocally be the end of college athletics. To me, college athletics, by definition, is played by students who are full-time students, who are seriously pursuing their academic work, who are not employees of the university, and who have these remarkable opportunities because they are students. If we went to paying student-athletes, and by the way, that happened before the NCAA existed. Back in the 19th Century and the early part of the 20th Century, people were hired to play ball. One of the first rules of the Big Ten, the oldest conference in America, was you could only have three professionals on your team at a time. If you were going to do that, why would you even bother to have them be students? Just hire ex-NFL players and have them be your football team.
On the other hand, I think it’s really important that we provide student-athletes with all the support they need to be successful in a very demanding role. Being a successful student and Division I athlete today is really hard. For a student-athlete to have a part-time job is almost impossible. For them to have some of the other opportunities other students have, pretty tough. So there’s an active debate right now about providing initial financial support that’s called a miscellaneous expense allowance, which would cover clothing allowances, laundry costs, transportation costs, a weekend movie. And that number tends to be around $2,000 to $3,000 per year, per student. And there’s a big debate about allowing universities — not requiring them — to close that gap and the real cost of being a student. Nothing to do with paying for play; everything to do with saying, ‘Look, this kid deserves to have their costs covered in their scholarship.’ Right now, they can’t do that and I think we have to move in that direction. We need to be a lot more flexible.
Q: What’s the biggest misconception about the NCAA?
A: That it’s a monolithic entity, like the NFL. That I’m somehow Roger Goodell’s counterpart. The NCAA is a voluntary association of a collection of 1,100 colleges and universities who set the rules, set the parameters, and agree to self-enforce and self-police. The staff in Indianapolis and I have the responsibility of essentially carrying out that mission on their behalf. I don’t have the authority to change a rule; I don’t have the authority to pass judgment on a team that’s charged with an infraction. That’s all done by the membership. It’s a jury of your peers, if you will.
The second misconception is this notion that every university and college plays sports because they make money at it, that this is a big money-making proposition. The opposite is true. Out of the 1,100 members last year, 20 had positive cash flow in their athletic program. Virtually everybody subsidizes college sports to a great extent because it’s an important part of a college and university experience. A small number of programs—football programs in particular—generate huge cash, but it pays for everything else. And that’s what people don’t see.
This interview was originally posted on www.buckcardinal.com