Might we finally be on the road to wide-sweeping reforms in college athletics No, I’m not talking about the ongoing conference realignment saga. Change has already swept across the collegiate landscape in that regard. Instead, the very first steps seem to have been taken by the NCAA towards altering the way players are compensated and how schools are punished for not taking the ‘student’ part of ‘student athlete’ development seriously. NCAA President Mark Emmert recently announced a new stipend program for student athletes, as well as a new set of rules that would prohibit schools that perform poorly academically from participating in Bowl games and March Madness. We’ll see how these initiatives evolve over time, but for critics of the NCAA, these steps are a welcomed development.
Emmert joined Westwood One to talk about how the initial response has been to the changes he set in place recently involving student stipends and academic performance benchmarks to be eligible for postseason competition, what some of the prevailing arguments against the changes are based on, how the increased student stipend won’t affect competitive fairness due to the requirement that it be adopted on a conference-wide basis rather than by individual schools, how many teams would have been ineligible for March Madness or a Bowl game last year were the new rules fully in place, and what’s next on his agenda in terms of continuing to reform the world of collegiate athletics.
How his reforms have been met initially:
“Well, extremely well. Obviously there are some folks that have differences of opinion about them, but overall the response from our membership, from our coaches, has been very, very supportive.”
On what some of the differing opinions are on these issues:
“Well first of all, on the scholarship issue — as I’m sure you know and have read about, we talked about it the last time we talked — there’s some confusion about this increase to help cover the full cost of attendance. On the issue of pay for play, this unequivocally not about paying young men and women to be student athletes, it’s about trying to help recognize the costs of going to school that every university and college includes when they talk about what it costs to go to schools.
This has helped close that gap, but it’s created a lot of discussion about ‘well, should we be paying players? Should we be moving towards a professionalization of student athletes. And as you know, I and all of the members of the NCAA are adamantly opposed to that. The presidents and I are in complete agreement that this is about collegiate athletes, it’s not about professional athletes. And that doesn’t mean we don’t want to support them as well as we possibly can and help them be successful. So that’s been a great debate. And then the pieces on the academic side, when we included an academic requirement to be eligible to compete in postseason play, that’s instigated a lot of conversation as well. And that’s fine, but at the end of the day, this is about getting young men and women good educations.”
On conferences not having to implement the increased stipend provision, and if there’s a concern that that might lead to even bigger disparities between some of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ across the country:
“Yeah, sure there is. But let’s put it in context. Right now in Division 1 you’ve got the least well-funded conferences are able to spend about $40-$45,000 per student; the best-funded conferences spend about four times that — about $150-$160,000 per student. Changing that equation by $2,000 dollars isn’t going to change much in terms of the competitive advantage somebody has, it’s already pretty stark. But what it really does is when we set the rule, we wanted it to be adopted by conferences, not just individual schools. So most schools worry about the competitive fairness across their conference, they want to win their conference championship, they want to be on a level, fair playing field with schools across their conference. So by saying that if you adopt this, you have to do it by conference, not school by school, it injects a relative parity across the schools within any one conference. And that’s what most people wanted to see, so I think while there’s some concern about it, it’s really going to have very little impact on a thing like competitive fairness.”
How many of the 68 teams in last year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament would not have been eligible under the new academic standards rules:
“Under this new rule if it was fully in place last year, there would have been seven teams in the men’s basketball tournament that wouldn’t have gotten in, and there would have been eight football teams ineligible for Bowl games. So it would have had a significant impact. On the other hand, what we’re very confident of — what I’m very confident of — is that knowing that’s the bar they’ve got to get over, they’ll get over it. There will be some that don’t make it I’m sure. But the vast majority of them, the right thing is going to happen now — the coaches, the ADs, the players and everyone in the athletic department are going to go ‘if we don’t make sure we’re maintaining our academic standards, we’re not going to get to play in the tournament; that’s our goal, that’s why we came here, to go play in the tournament. Now all of a sudden that’s at risk unless we’re serious about school work. And that’s the behavior change we want.”
On what’s the next top priority for him in terms of reforming college sports:
“Well, the next on our own list, and we’re going to be addressing it in our January and April meetings, is to go after our rule book. The rules in Division 1, most of them are thoughtful, good rules; but when you add them all up you’ve got 425 pages with a lot of rules that are insignificant, unenforceable, are really just silly. So I’ve got a working group going right now being led by some very good university presidents, commissioners, ADs and student athletes, that are going through the rule book in broad
swaths and saying ‘how can we get this down to just be sensible rules that focus on the integrity of the game and the behaviors that we really care about — not whether or not somebody’s made five too many phone calls or is using text messaging; worrying about whether people are engaged in academic fraud, are people engaged in misconduct that includes being deceitful, are we protecting the sport by keeping third parties that are serving as negative influences out of the game as effectively as we can? Those are the things that really matter, those are the things that really undermine what we stand for. So that’s the next set of reforms coming — fix the rulebook, and then fix the enforcement process so that we’re focused on the things that really count.”