David J. Phillip/AP

NCAA president Mark Emmert defends Penn State sanctions, talks freshman ineligibility, explores the one-and-done rule, more.

By Ben Glicksman and Colin Becht
April 23, 2015

NEW YORK—A little more than five minutes into his opening remarks at the APSE commissioners meetings on Thursday morning, NCAA president Mark Emmert cracked a joke. He was discussing the way his association operates, and dryly likened it to another oft-criticized entity: the U.S. government.

“How do we make decisions? A lot like Congress, which is to say, poorly.”

The NCAA has come under fire from seemingly every angle in recent months. A federal judge ruled against the organization in the O’Bannon v. NCAA antitrust case in August. A number of unflattering documents pertaining to the lawsuit between the NCAA and ex-USC assistant Todd McNair were unsealed in March. Media outlets from coast to coast have questioned the body’s rulebook, directive and purpose; heck, HBO’s John Oliver spent almost 21 minutes bashing the NCAA on the night the men’s basketball tournament bracket was unveiled.

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As the college sports landscape continues to evolve, the NCAA must continue to evolve, too. And while it has implemented several measures that have been widely heralded—it approved autonomy for the Power Five conferences, which passed cost-of-attendance scholarship measures; it approved unlimited meals and snacks for student-athletes—it has also been painfully slow to address other major issues, drawing (both fair and unfair) condemnation in the process.

“I think it’s fair to say we’re in one of the most interesting and probably dynamic moments in the history of college sports,” Emmert said. He added, “You have to go back almost the founding of the NCAA to find a moment when there was as much turmoil and concern about college sports as there is today.”

So, what are Emmert’s thoughts on the past, present and future of the NCAA? Here are his points of emphasis from the 90-minute session, when he touched on the Penn State enforcement situation, the freshman ineligibility debate and more.

• On the lawsuits being brought against the NCAA: “We’ve got new levels of legal challenges that we’ve not seen in the history of college sports. That’s obviously a complication that we’re working our way through. We like our legal positions a lot. We feel good about where we’re gonna wind up with them.”

• On the importance of this era in college sports: “I think over the next 24, 36, 48 months max, we’re gonna see a lot of really important resolution of some really important elements of college sports that will set up the next 20, 40, 50 years, not unlike what happened 100 years ago. It’s kind of a déjà vu moment in that sense.”

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• On the NCAA’s reputation for being inflexible: “When people say the association can’t make decisions to adjust to the times, I think they’re ignoring what’s really going on. Is it easy? No. It is messy? Sure. Democracy is. Is it occasionally reactive instead of proactive? Sure. That’s what democracy is, too. But I’m actually really proud of what those member universities have been willing and able to do.”

• On whether cost-of-attendance measures will widen the gap between the Power Five and other leagues: “Universities are entities that make budgetary decisions all the time. Will that change the balance between the haves and the have-nots? I think the answer is it won’t change it more than it already has been changed.”

• On the Penn State sanctions levied in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal: “I remain pleased with where the executive committee wound up in that case. I think the sanctions that were crafted were right and appropriate. I think that in terms of what—if you could turn back time—what you could do differently is handle the communications differently. I think the sanctions imposed by the NCAA in too many people’s minds got tangled up with the university and its own board was doing, and what law enforcement was doing, because they happened in such rapid sequence they kind of all got mashed together.

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“I think it would have been really useful to have some of that separated more clearly in the way that it was communicated. I get questions about when we’re gonna let them put the [Joe Paterno] statue back up. Like we took down the statue. I think communication could have been handled a lot better. Certainly I could’ve done that a lot better. But the reality is it was a very, very difficult circumstance for the university. Again, I think the executive committee, now called the board of governors, wound up in the right place.”

• On the NCAA’s role in academic scandals, like the one at North Carolina: “Look, we never want a national association for athletics to become an arbiter of what is or isn’t academic legitimacy. What we do want is to pay attention to whether or not student-athletes are being treated differently, or whether student-athletes are being given preferential treatment in some fashion or another, that gives them some inappropriate advantage. Or whether or not an athletic department or people working with them are complicit in some sort of fraudulent activity.

“This will be an active debate next week at our upcoming board meetings. What’s the right role for the national governing body in looking at academic integrity? And when do you have to say, ‘University X, this is on you. No one can affect the value of your degree except you. You’re in charge of that.’”

• On cheating in college sports: “There’s this critique out there that there’s never been a better time to cheat. I think that’s absolutely wrong. I think it’s harder to cheat [now] than it has been in a long time. If you talk to coaches, ask them what cheating looked like in the ’80s compared to today. They will all, everyone I talked to, will say, ‘Oh my god, it’s so much worse.’ It’s so much harder to do stuff.”

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• On the Big Ten’s freshman ineligibility proposal: “I’m really pleased that the Big Ten presidents want to at least have the conversation, because it’s worth having. The first thing is to step back and to say, what problem are we trying to solve here? So, there are folks that say, oh, this is about getting rid of one-and-done. Well that would be a sledgehammer on a mosquito.

The real question that we need to address is, are students sufficiently serious about being students as well as athletes? And are they sufficiently prepared to be successful as a student as well as an athlete?”

• On changing the timeframe to give players more information before deciding to declare for the NBA draft: “When we surveyed our college athletes who play men’s basketball in Division I, 75% believed they were going to be professional basketball players. 75% say, ‘I’m going to play professional basketball.’ 50%—this is a real stunner—50% of D-II say, ‘I’m going to be a professional basketball player.’ About a quarter of D-III men’s basketball players [say], “I’m going to play professional basketball.’ Now these aren’t stupid kids, but they’re deluded about the realities of what they’re future holds in basketball.

“I personally would be much more flexible about how we create interaction with professional sports leagues to get these kids real information. So the NBA is talking about inviting a fixed number of players to a tryout. Well if you don’t get invited, that ought to send you a message. ‘Oh, maybe I need to stay in college, and maybe I ought to think about a different career path.’ That could be really helpful. Personally I don’t see anything profoundly wrong with letting somebody go spend a year in the D-League and then say, ‘Oof, I’m not that good,’ and then come back to college.”

• On whether the NCAA should be responsible for drug testing players: “I happen to believe that the association ought to focus its efforts on performance-enhancing drugs, especially because they also have health ramifications. And we need to do that as effectively as we can. Whether or not it would be national in scope I don’t know because of state laws. In the state of Washington, for example, random drug testing has been deemed [illegal] by the Supreme Court of Washington, but in New York probably not. So, are you going to randomly test kids in New York but not in Washington? You’ve got this crazy quilt of legal environments.”

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• On one-and-done players: “A young man or woman shouldn’t have to go to college to become a professional athlete. If they want to come to college to become a better athlete and get a degree, then come on. But to force somebody to go to college, who has no interest in being in college except they’ve got to touch that base to get to second and third, makes a travesty of the whole notion [of] a college athlete.”

• On the decision last year to deregulate food provided to student-athletes: “It wasn’t like [athletics] were taking that $700,000 and sending it to the chemistry department. They were going to spend it on the locker room, or they were going to spend it on the video system. Spend it on kids. So they’re giving kids better nutrition. Some of their argument about not doing it was, ‘Well, people are going to compete over who can give kids the best food.’ I said, ‘Yeah, why is that a bad thing?’ ‘Well, so-and-so is going to be able to give them steak and we’re only going to give them hamburger.’ ‘Well, O.K., they’ve got a better gym than you, too.'"

• On the debate surrounding football satellite camps: “I think [the college football oversight committee has] to address it on a national scale. Whether they throw the gates the open or whether they close it down will be their call.”

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