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Charlie Baker Goes to the NCAA

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For Charlie Baker, there are a lot of things similar about being a governor and the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) — the nonprofit organization that regulates student athletics at about 1,100 schools across the nation.

“One of the things that’s similar is the diversity of the constituency,” says Baker, who took the helm of the NCAA in March 2023.  “If you’re a governor — at least in Massachusetts — you worry about 351 cities and towns and you love them all because they all matter, and if you’re doing your job, you and your administration are spending a lot of time with everybody.”

National Collegiate Athletic Association President Charlie Baker attends the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta, Georgia.National Collegiate Athletic Association President Charlie Baker attends the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta, Georgia.At the NCAA, Baker currently works with institutions — across Division I, II, and III that comprise 19,000 teams, 500,000 student-athletes. It’s a much bigger operation, he says, reflecting on his days as governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. “But for me, it still has some of the same elements being a titular head of a state.”

And part of the way that Baker has tried to marry those two functions is by meeting with all 97 conferences in his first 150 days on the job, barnstorming the nation to get in front of student-athletes, athletic directors, college presidents, conference commissioners and to talk to them on their own terms about a whole host of issues.

“A bunch of the things that we ended up working on came out of those conversations,” says Baker, who was a student-athlete himself, having played basketball during his time at Harvard.

And while it is a far bigger footprint than the one he says he had serving as the leader of a single state, the diversity of opinion and the life experiences is one that he has readily embraced.

“I was surprised to discover that some of the things that I learned, which I hoped made me a more effective governor, were things that were applicable in this job as well,” he says in a wide-ranging interview with Diverse.

If someone had asked Baker at the time about his plans post his governorship in 2022, he says that serving as NCAA president would not have been on the list.

“I would have told you that I would be visiting with schools of public administration and management to talk about a book I had just written with a friend of mine (Results: Getting Beyond Politics to Get Important Work Done), and I would be doing some consulting for some folks in the healthcare world who are interested in what I have to say about some of the issues in healthcare generally, but this was not on my radar,” he says.

It was a call from Sam Kennedy, president of the Boston Red Sox, that convinced Baker that — after eight years as governor coupled with his interest in collegiate sports — he might consider applying for the position.

Now that he’s been on the job for more than a year, Baker says that, in some ways, the position has been more challenging, and in other ways, it has been “pleasantly surprising.”NCAA President Charlie Baker remains supportive of efforts to enable student-athletes to benefit from NIL.NCAA President Charlie Baker remains supportive of efforts to enable student-athletes to benefit from NIL.

During his first year in the role, Baker has shepherded the Student Athlete Holistic Policy for D-I, which guarantees scholarships and access to mental health services. In addition, Baker touts the Injury Insurance Protection Program, which will provide student-athletes across all three divisions, with access to two years of either primary coverage or secondary coverage to treat an injury that a student-athlete suffered because of playing a sport and hasn’t been fully treated by the time they leave college.

“I think that’s a huge win,” he says, adding that the NCAA has had great success in promoting, marketing, and selling women sports across the years. “We have had enormous turnout and really good TV viewing across all of our major women championships, and obviously, I think that has something to do with why we got a really good deal with ESPN.”

Baker says the NCAA is in the process of building a sports fan database.

“It’s 2024, and we have millions of people who attend our championships, and we [have] never really gotten to know and learn much about them and that’s going to change,” he says, adding that the goal is to have 10 million sports fan added to the database. “I think it can bring real exposure, visibility, and support both in terms of getting folks to come to games and to come to tournaments and to come to championships, but we will also get eyeballs watching some of these sports who wouldn’t [have] necessarily been there otherwise.”

In an effort to broaden his focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, Baker attended last year’s NCAA Inclusion Forum and has been making his rounds, most recently visiting the CIAA conference in Baltimore, which is led by Jacqueline “Jacqie” McWilliams.

A pragmatist, Baker knows that he has tread carefully on this issue, particularly in light of the legislative crackdowns in states across the nation.

“I can make an argument, and I think we can make an argument that wanting to see our schools continue to enhance opportunities and to provide access to opportunities for all of their students and their student-athletes is an important element of who we are and what we’re about.”

Baker says that the NCAA has changed the way that its bylaws are structured to focus on the goal “and not so much on the language and the terminology.”

“Sports, which used to be where people went to get away from politics, has now become sort of more embedded in it than it was before,” he says, adding that when he meets with students, they tend to raise a host of questions about everything from NIL (name, image, and likeness) to the gear and equipment, but “honestly, we really don’t talk much about politics.”

Student-athletes, he says, want to talk about what they’re getting out of their collegiate experience, how much their teammates depend on them, and other issues like college betting, which has become a growing phenomenon.

Baker says he remains supportive of efforts to enable student-athletes to benefit from NIL.

“People have been doing this in other spaces for years,” he says. “There is no reason why kids shouldn’t be able to do this in sports.”

Baker says that plans are underway to create a uniformed standard contract for NIL and resources to help student-athletes manage through the process.

“I like Charlie Baker, I really do,” says Sean Frazier, vice president/director of athletics and recreation at Northern Illinois University. “He’s the right leader at the right time.”

Still, Frazier says that college athletics is undergoing a metamorphosis of change, particularly as it relates to NIL and DEI which has become a “political football” in states across the nation.

But he applauds Baker’s outreach to HBCUs, which he says is pivotal to the future of college sports.

“There’s a lot of power as well as influence in HBCU athletics,” says Frazier, who was pleased to hear that Baker met with McWilliams recently. “The CIAA has been a mainstay year in and year out for the most premier basketball tournaments in the country, so he’s listening. He’s going on a listening tour. He’s seeing the value of trying to relate and create a shared agenda.”

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