Sports

How Mark Emmert ‘lost the locker room’ and other factors that led to NCAA change at the top

IRVING, Texas — Part of the job of the NCAA president is to take the criticism for what many consider an outdated collegiate athletic model. The president is paid handsomely for this.

But what separates that part of the job from what Mark Emmert actually got wrong? Where, along the way, did he lose the faith of his constitution?

As one high-level administrator put it, “He lost the locker room of the practitioners.” Then, in recent weeks and months, his brethren from him — the university presidents — finally turned on him. Emmert had come to the NCAA in November 2010 from the University of Washington, where he’d been president. He’d served as the chancellor of LSU before that. The NCAA’s highest governing body, the Board of Governors, is currently composed entirely of university presidents and chancellors. That’s the group that extended Emmert’s contract almost exactly a year ago, in the wake of gender equity issues exposed at the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

Athletic directors and some conference commissioners were apoplectic at the extensionwith many lamenting a tenure that was not proactive regarding the most pressing issues facing college athletics, allowing outside forces to dictate the NCAA’s viability and future.

A year later, most administrators echoed Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff’s reaction to the news: “I was not surprised.”

Some admitted to surprise at the timing of Emmert stepping down but not the outcome. One said that few ADs seemed interested in spending time around Emmert at the men’s Final Four a few weeks ago. Another pointed to him awarding the trophy to the “Kansas City Jayhawks” as yet another example of him putting his foot in his mouth. That person noted that he used to be a good public speaker but even he seemed less confident in what he was saying in recent months. All he’s really done is use his pulpit to plead for Congress to swoop in and save the day by setting national standards with federal name, image and likeness (NIL) legislation.

“I tried to do some things (early on). He tried to look at full (cost-of-attendance) scholarships … saying that we’ve got to realize we’ve got to expand beyond just room, board, books, tuition — the whole bit,” said longtime Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. “That wasn’t readily accepted. Then, we all just kind of kicked the can down the road and said, ‘We’ll figure it out.’ Well, we haven’t figured it out, and it’s in somebody else’s (hands). It’s going to be hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube at this point.

“It’s not a singular individual’s fault. It’s the whole group. It’s everybody.”

Added ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, “We’re all responsible.”

“I’m not going to point a finger in one direction when I’ve been part of it,” Phillips continued. “I wish I would have seen some things a bit clearer. I think all of you feel that way. … But I know we all feel strongly that it’s worth fighting for. This is about access and opportunity for a group of young people who may not be able to go to college without scholarships or without the opportunity to play a sport.

“We’re in a tough situation, but it’s incumbent upon us to find some solutions about what the modernization of college athletics looks like. We’re not going to go back to yesteryear.”

Over the years, Emmert often pointed out that he was the president of a membership-driven organization and that there needed to be broad consensus to change rules or shift policies. He’s right, but campus leaders always felt like there was more that could be done in the kind of role he held. Maybe you can’t force constituents to vote a certain way, but you can drive them to consensus. You can prioritize certain issues. You can communicate clearly and frequently — which is something those on campus said Emmert never really did much beyond his inner circle. When Emmert announced the cancellation of fall NCAA championships in the summer of 2020, many coaches and ADs were blindsided by the decision and found out about it on Twitter.

Everything that’s unfolded over the past decade was not necessarily preordained or inevitable. So, where did the disillusionment with Emmert specifically begin? When did it become too much?

Ask that question, and you’ll get a lot of different answers. There were the early missteps, such as the NCAA overreach in the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, penalties that the organization had to walk back. The overall obstructive legal strategy included appealing to a relatively favorable ruling regarding capping academic-related athlete compensation to the Supreme Court, which led to a resounding and embarrassing 9-0 defeat in NCAA v. Alston. Many would also point to his passive approach to leadership during the pandemic-induced uncertainty of the summer of 2020, which led to disjointed decision-making by conferences themselves and a lack of communication between the national office and leagues overall. Or a buck-passing response to the 2021 women’s basketball tournamentan event which an outside law firm found was deeply undervalued.

The NCAA’s failure to get in front of NIL reform will haunt the organization for years to come, as the floodgates opened in July 2021 without any real NCAA legislation in place to standardize or regulate behavior. The organization’s enforcement arm failed, too, as booster groups sprouted up throughout the country to pool resources to pay recruits, challenging the NCAA to enforce one of its core principles: no pay-for-play. Perhaps if the NCAA had wrapped its arms around NIL preemptively years ago, it wouldn’t have such a big bull’s-eye on its back now.

“Maybe we should have been more proactive a while ago,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said. “It’s a law of unintended consequences.”

Thompson pointed out that the schools in his conference aren’t all the same in terms of resources or the way they operate — and that’s just 12 schools. Attempting to lead an organization with more than 1,000 members in three vastly different divisions is obviously challenging.

“I think the NCAA is a trade organization which represents lots of schools that are in different businesses and different business models,” Kliavkoff said. “I can’t imagine a trade organization as broad as the NCAA in its current structure remaining intact.”

But that dynamic is also what led the NCAA to the inflection point it finds itself at right now. The Supreme Court ruling, other legal challenges and state and federal lawmakers have applied a tremendous amount of outside pressure. Inside, there are plenty of administrators who have been calling for governance and rules reform for years. Emmert himself announced that the NCAA needed to begin a process to decentralize its authority last summer, deferring instead to conferences and individual schools to limit legal exposure and allow those who govern college sports to react more nimbly.

“I hope we can decide as many things as we can for ourselves,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “Clearly, (some) has been identified for us by additional constituent groups we need to be closely attuned to. It’ll be a marriage of all of those things.”

The Division I Transformation Committee is tasked with figuring out which rules should be under leagues’ purview, such as scholarship limits in sports like baseball, and which rules should remain national, such as eligibility certification. The group, chaired by SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and Ohio athletic director Julie Cromer, is essentially charting the course for what college sports can and will be moving forward. Is academics still tied to the athletic mission? Is the NCAA just in the business of running championships? What requirements must members meet to remain connected to one another?

“We wouldn’t be here if everything was easy,” Sankey said. “In some ways, we’ve dealt with a lot of easy issues and pushed off the difficult matters. That’s why some of these challenges are coming up.”

The next NCAA president will have to face them more head-on than Emmert did. He or she can’t just be a lightning rod for public criticism or a talking head at a hearing on Capitol Hill. The future of the collegiate sports enterprise hangs in the balance.

(Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

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