Emmert Exits; What's Next for College Sports and the NCAA?
Those sounds you heard Tuesday night of raucous cheering and champagne corks popping across the country were in response to the departure of longtime NCAA president Mark Emmert, a man reviled by sports fans everywhere and held in contempt by most players, coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners, and the media.
Emmert got the boot from the NCAA Board of Governors, although the decision was announced as being a "mutual agreement." Just a year ago, these same governors granted him an extension of his contract in a decision that was jeered as universally as Tuesday's announcement was cheered.
Emmert was a 12-year disaster. Under his "leadership," the NCAA was incompetent, gutless and hypocritical. Largely because of his ineptness, the organization was marginalized and became, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant.
The NCAA under Emmert couldn’t enforce its own rules, couldn’t provide direction to its more than 1100 members, couldn’t win a court case, and couldn’t adapt to a rapidly changing universe.
Consistency was not one of Emmert’s strengths. Early in his tenure, he tried to levy extra sanctions on Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, but was forced to walk them back. Then a few months ago, he punted on rampant sexual abuse at Baylor, announcing that a five-year investigation wouldn’t result in any sanctions.
Under Emmert’s watch, the NCAA lost control of football, and the power in college sports migrated from the NCAA office to the commissioners of the Power Five conferences. So when COVID hit, and conferences vacillated on whether or not to cancel the 2020 football season, Emmert and his staff went AWOL, providing no direction or guidance.
His hypocritical obsession with preserving a facade of “amateurism” resulted in a string of legal losses and a 9-0 rebuke by the Supreme Court. His insistence on using the term “student-athlete,” at a time when academics were neglected or abused at many member institutions, became a national punch line.
Forced to accept NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) compensation for student athletes after laws were passed by over 20 states, Emmert once again failed to provide any substantive national guidelines.
After last year’s revelations of gross disparities in training facilities, COVID testing and accommodations for the participants in the men’s and women’s NCAA Basketball Championships, he offered a lame, tone deaf response and made only minor cosmetic changes.
Emmert’s final embarrassment came at the NCAA Basketball Finals earlier this month, when he presented the championship trophy to the “Kansas City Jayhawks,” a foot-in-mouth moment made even more humiliating by the fact that Kansas’ very presence in the tournament symbolized the NCAA’s inability to enforce its rules.
The Jayhawks won the title despite allegations of major violations dating back to the 2017 FBI investigation of corruption in college basketball and tape recordings of its coach discussing payments to players from a shoe company.
It was a fitting end to a career train wreck.
What’s Next: Emmert’s successor will have a huge task: figuring out what the role of the NCAA is going forward, and how best to play that role.
His departure comes during a time of massive changes in college sports marked by unregulated player compensation—in which NIL fees are clearly being used for talent acquisition—unprecedented player movement, conference realignment, and out-of-control spending on coaching salaries and facilities.
The fact is, college football and basketball long ago became big businesses. Athletes are commodities and games are inventory for television networks, which pay enormous rights fees to line the coffers of schools and conferences, and the pockets of commissioners, athletic directors and coaches (and now, the athletes themselves).
As a former college administrator and bowl director, I’m often asked where this is headed. I give a talk entitled “Game Over: The Big Business of College Sports and the Death of Amateurism.”
Within the next five, or at most, 10 years, I believe college football is headed toward a Premier League-type setup that will include the top 30 or 40 programs in the country, the schools that generate the most TV revenue.
And it won’t be long before some court or regulatory body rules that college athletes are, in fact employees. Because they are.
The big question college presidents are going to have to consider in the not too distant future is this:
Should we participate in a super league where players are paid for performance and treated as employees, where the teams are tied to the university in name only (perhaps through a license fee)?
Or should we create and play in a “super ivy league” where teams operate within a traditional university structure, where education still matters, and where the sports program is integrated into the school in terms of decision-making and requirements?
Where the NCAA fits in all of this is TBD. It may be that the organization’s only role is to run national championship events.
In that case, is it even necessary to have a president?
One thing’s for sure, the next several years are going to be chaotic, controversial, and fascinating.