Mark Emmert – The Man in the Middle

INDIANAPOLIS — President of the NCAA since October 2010, Dr. Mark Emmert is constantly engaged in a delicate balancing act, as he deals with the competing priorities and agendas of college presidents, coaches, athletic directors, boosters, sports agents and the media while trying to look out for the best interests of the student-athlete, ostensibly in college to receive an education. Most recently, Emmert was criticized by John Calipari, head coach of the 2012 national champion Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team, over his view that NBA-ready high schoolers should not be forced to spend a year in college, as current NBA rules practically demand.

In a conversation with Diverse earlier this month at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, Emmert discussed the NBA’s “one and done” rule and numerous other college sports issues, including the perception that the NCAA is a willing participant in the exploitation of the Black athlete for financial gain. Emmert has been under intense pressure from numerous intercollegiate athletics stakeholders to forcefully confront the powers that be who want nothing to interrupt the billions in TV, ticket sales and merchandizing revenue generated by college athletics programs, even if large numbers of Black athletes, at the end of the day, end up back on the streets after their NCAA glory days are over, with no degree or marketable skills.

DI: Can you reflect on how your role as NCAA president differs from prior positions you’ve held leading NCAA-member institutions?

ME: We have nearly 500 employees, and I have conventional line authority over that staff, but at the same time, our role and mission is to serve. So it is a classic leadership-servant model of running an organization where you have to provide leadership on key issues and help the membership find solutions to the problems that they see out there. But on the other hand, if the membership doesn’t want to go in some direction, then you don’t go in that direction, and a classic example is the BCS debate. So everyone says, “Well, Emmert, when are you going to solve the BCS debate?” Well, as soon as the presidents want to solve that problem, it will get solved, but right now they haven’t determined they want to solve it. So it’s something I’d much more liken to being Secretary-General of the U.N. than head of a corporation.

DI: What is your response to criticism Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari has leveled against you for your opposition to NBA rules that force some would be draftees to play some college ball?

ME: Well, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I greatly dislike the one-and-done model. … The baseball rule is you can go right out of high school, but if you go to college, you’ve got to stay three years. Everybody has got their own set of rules here, and they’re built into the labor contracts of each of those professional sports. So I happen to believe that college students and college athletics would be much better served if the basketball rules were more like the football rules or the baseball rules. And the idea that a youngster coming out of high school has no interest in going to college but feels obligated to go there for six months to touch that base so he can get to his real goal, that doesn’t make any sense to me. It makes a mockery of collegiate athletics. Collegiate athletics is about college students playing sports. [NBA] Commissioner [David] Stern has opined on this as well.

He and I have talked about it. I’ve talked to coach Calipari about this. There seems to be a strong interest on most everyone’s — but not maybe the Players Association’s — part, in changing that rule and having kids stay in college longer, which would greatly benefit those kids who want to come to college. If they don’t, go play in the Development League, go play in Europe, go do something else, but if you come to college, be a college student.

DI: Is it reasonable to ask college athletes to step up their performance in the classroom given the reality that for many students, playing college sports is like a job, with the amount of time they commit to practices, traveling for games, etc.?

ME: First of all, we have established as a baseline goal for Division I athletics, the team program will have, as its base assumption, a 50 percent graduation rate. In almost every sport, that happens today, but in football and men’s basketball we’ve got some challenges. We’re trying to fix those things; and in some specific programs at some specific universities we’ve got problems and we’re trying to fix that. So this is about not changing the whole culture; this is about catching the outliers that aren’t at that level.

When we look at the facts, we know that one thing that prevents kids from graduating at the 50 percent rate is that they don’t come to college prepared. They don’t have a strong enough high school education. They were failed by their high schools in many respects. So we’re putting in place new expectations and standards that are going to roll out in 2016 to increase the expectations of preparation by the time they get to us.

We know that community college transfers who come in and play sports are coming in ill-prepared for a university-level education. We’re changing those standards.

We’ve got to also make sure that the universities, the teams and the athletic departments are providing these kids with the kind of academic support in terms of tutorial support and study support. If some coach thinks it’s the right thing to play 40 games of basketball, it’s incumbent upon that coach to make sure that, that person also has time and opportunity and support to study.

DI: We quoted an anonymous HBCU president saying increased NCAA academic standards “will kill us,” as HBCUs are among the most under-resourced institutions, yet serve a high number of underprepared students. What’s your response?

ME: I’ve met with most of the HBCU presidents in Division I. We’ve talked a lot about this issue. The fundamental question, of course, that comes up is, well, should, for example, the 930 APR apply to everybody?

The HBCU presidents that I’ve talked to are unanimous in their agreement that they want and expect to have the same academic goals and standards applied to them that are applied to everybody else. The real question is, “What resources do you need and what’s required of you to get there to reach that goal, and is that a fair competition?”

What we’re working with the HBCU presidents on and other low-resource institutions is saying, “OK, look, clearly you will need more time to meet this standard, you will need to get a running start on it,” and try and help you get to that level of performance. You will need more resources in terms of just financial resources, so we tripled the amount of funding that we provide them for this coming year in terms of money that we’re going to give to low-resource schools and HBCUs to help them with tutorial support and academic support inside their athletic departments.

We’ve got to provide all the consulting advice that we can provide around what are best practices, what do we know works in some cases and doesn’t work in others. And when we walk through that agenda with HBCU leaders, low-resource leaders, their comfort level goes up a lot.

We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that this is not, as that one president said, a guarantee of failure; quite the opposite, we want nothing more than to have them have the highest level of success. And, you know, the majority of them are there now, and a number of them are performing extremely well in these circumstances.

DI: A commercial in heavy rotation during the NCAA men’s basketball championship game touted the statistic that African-American male students who are athletes graduate at a 10 percent higher rate than their non-athlete counterparts. Why has the NCAA tackled the racial achievement gap question so directly?

ME: Having spent 30 years on campuses, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy and resources closing the achievement gap, not among student athletes, just among students in general, between various gender and racial differences and ethnic group differences and had great success in that. At the University of Washington, for example, we saw, in my time there and the years preceding that, [a] really dramatic closing of that gap. There’s still a gap, a significant gap, but nothing like what it once was, and I was very proud of that. And then I come here and you start looking at the data and you realize that the stereotypes that exist on campuses all over America are that when you see a Black male, you assume, one, he’s an athlete, and two, he’s not a good student.

Well, the realities are exactly the opposite. So we just decided to try and take that issue on head on and get people to see that not only does athletics provide opportunities, $2 billion worth of scholarship support every year — second only to the federal government — [athletes] also perform better in the classroom than the non-athletes.

Well, that’s a story that people just don’t know, and that story applies to whether they’re men or women, whether they’re Black or White, it doesn’t matter. The ethnic, racial, gender issues don’t matter; [athletes] perform better. We need to be proud of that fact. That’s what that ad is all about.

DI: Clearly, there are some institutions whose egregious record in graduating Black athletes is dragging down overall numbers and perception. What are you doing to deal with these institutions?

ME: First and foremost to me, this is a moral issue. I don’t worry about the young man … who can come in, play a year, go off and play in the NBA. I worry about the kid who comes to school, he’s ill-prepared because nobody has ever given him the educational opportunities he deserved. They muddle through, and they’re not going to make it in the NBA, they’re not going to make it in the NFL. They didn’t get an education, and they went there for three years, and then they flunked out. Now, what’s that kid’s prospects? Basketball used them instead of them using basketball, right? That’s an egregious thing for a school to do.

If you bring a young man or a young woman into your campus and you give them a scholarship, and you say, “You’re here to be a college athlete,” then you have an obligation to help that person get a college degree or, at the very least, get as much education as they want to stay in school for, because we all know the real mathematical odds of somebody making it in professional sports. Tiny.

 DI: Is it time to revisit Title IX, as we look back on its 40 years of existence?

ME: The notion that [Title IX] has diminished opportunities for men in sport is actually a misnomer. As women’s sports participation has risen, so has men’s. So there has been increased opportunity for men and for women, women obviously rising much faster to start to catch up with men.

When I was at the University of Washington, I would get questions from the women’s volleyball team, “What can we do to support volleyball?” and I would always say, not joking, buy football tickets because that’s how we pay for women’s volleyball.

“How can we help the women’s gymnastic team?” Buy football tickets … because that’s the economic engine that produces the resources that support everything else. If you’re in a low-resource institution or a program where the football team doesn’t have big positive cash flow or you don’t have big media contracts, then it’s a challenge, I recognize that, but it is one of those things that’s sort of a Magna Carta of w sport that I’m very supportive of.