Opinion: After a decade of Mark Emmert, NCAA needs new leadership
Gerald Gurney spent 18 years as director for academics and student life in the OU athletic department. Since 2011, Gurney has been an OU assistant professor in of Educational Leadership, Educational Psychology and Policy Studies, and Human Relations. Gurney is a frequent critic of the NCAA and has teamed with Ohio University’s B. David Ridpath to write a reproach of NCAA president Mark Emmert.
By Dr. B. David Ridpath, Ohio University
& Dr. Gerald Gurney, University of Oklahoma
In fall 2020, Dr. Mark Emmert will reach a decade as president of the NCAA, the nation’s largest tax-exempt and educational non-profit governing college sport. Last year, his contract was extended until to 2023. Emmert earned a staggering $3.9 million in total compensation last year, including an annual salary of $2.5 million.
Emmert has enjoyed unwavering support from his board of governors despite steady and warranted criticism. After Emmert’s 2016 contract extension, the chair of the NCAA board of governors, Kansas State University president Kirk Schultz said, “I and the board feel strongly that Mark is integral in leading the association forward as we navigate the complex and challenging way ahead, while better supporting student-athletes.”
Heading the NCAA has been personally profitable for Emmert, but his leadership has been questionable at best. He has been described as “eternally embattled in repeated scandals.” An examination of a decade of evaluations from the perspectives of his NCAA bosses and the public bears little resemblance to one another. The board credits him with streamlining the multilayered NCAA “through an unprecedented period of change and transformation”, but he has mostly served his board’s interests by staunchly defending the principle of amateurism. One needs only to reference the principle of amateurism in the NCAA manual to establish how disingenuous Emmert sounds when describing the motivations of football and men’s basketball athletes as primarily motivated by education and the physical, mental and social benefits of sports and needing to “be protected” from the evils of commercialism.
From the public’s perspective, Emmert’s overall record is a disaster. For example, his bullying of Penn State administrators and overreach of power while bypassing the NCAA’s enforcement process without due process, and the University of Miami NCAA enforcement failure of using impermissible information. Even worse was his complete silence on the worst academic fraud scandal in college athletics history at the University of North Carolina and support of delegating the determination of academic fraud to the offending institution. His abrupt cancellation of the NCAA Certification Process in 2011 only shielded college officials from embarrassing transparent data, continued academic fraud schemes and non-compliance with Title IX.
Condoleeza Rice’s blue ribbon committee empowered by Emmert in 2018 to offer recommendations were ineffectual and largely ignored. Nobody believes college basketball cheating is fixed, but that didn’t seem to be the desired outcome. College presidents and the NCAA leadership stand largely silent in self-interest on crucial issues such as these. This is not what transformational effective leaders do.
Emmert’s leadership has done little to advance the educational experience of the college athlete. Instead of being progressive and recognizing that keeping any semblance of amateurism is a fool’s errand, he has desperately tried to hold on to a so-called “collegiate model” ideal. While he and other college presidents tout that the NCAA’s core issues are academics, fairness and athlete health and welfare, the NCAA still asserts that it has no legal obligation to protect the health and well-being of college athletes or to ensure the quality of their education.
In response to negative perceptions, Emmert adopted similar self-preservation strategies of many successful college presidents. He has cleverly reorganized the governance structure of the NCAA and supported the selection of like-minded college presidents, conference officials and athletic directors to critical internal governance positions.
Emmert is not a leader that advises college presidents and guides the membership though needed changes, such as modernizing with Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) rights for the athletes and enhanced health protections. On the contrary, he often defends the indefensible while managing the NCAA as a trade association focused on the massing revenue and power, rather than advocating for meaningful educational experiences and needed modernization of intercollegiate athletics in America. Even the much-ballyhooed graduation success rates are fraudulent, deliberately deceptive and inflated by 20%.
Between court cases, federal and state legislative action and a burgeoning athlete’s rights movement, the NCAA as an organization needs a progressive, dynamic and proactive leader, not one more concerned about personal gain and protecting a broken amateur governance model.
Universities like Louisville and Iowa State have been proactive in cutting budgets, excess salaries and administrative positions while keeping sport opportunities intact. It can be done, and times like this call for leaders willing to make the tough decisions. A leader of the NCAA must be able to convince college presidents to act in the best interests of all it member institutions rather than its most wealthy and powerful while effectively communicating with the public.
Intercollegiate athletics and higher education in America are at an important crossroads, amplified more due to the Covid-19 pandemic and loss of revenue streams mostly from cancelation of the NCAA’s lucrative men’s basketball tournament. Even with these challenges, there is one immediate change the NCAA membership can make now. and that is parting ways with Emmert. Even though he is still under contract, the time has come for the NCAA to use this crisis to begin a positive overhaul and make the NCAA a more effective nonprofit organization.
That change first starts at the top with a different and more athlete-focused leader.
It is time to end the status quo leadership and reactionary aspect of NCAA governance. In addition to the removal of Emmert, the NCAA itself should be radically restructured similar to other nonprofit institutions that enjoy tax-exempt status. Modern non-profit boards have a majority independent and non-biased members rather than current college presidents with vested interests.
The NCAA as currently structured has outlived its usefulness as the primary arbiter of intercollegiate competition in America. A recent letter to Congress from the Power 5 conferences of the Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and ACC asked for assistance with a national standard for NIL rights. This end-around from the conference commissioners show the ineffectiveness of NCAA governance and lack of respect for Emmert. As Senator Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri said to Emmert in 2014 at a Congressional hearing, “I can’t even tell whether you’re in charge or whether you’re a minion (to the universities). If you’re merely a monetary pass-through, why should you even exist?”
New and progressive leadership and an independent board, composed of vetted and distinguished former college presidents, distinguished faculty and former NCAA athletes, not beholden to trustees and boosters, offer a much better scenario for the future of college sports governance and its part in a larger educational mission. A reformed NCAA Governance structure must also reflect the gender and ethnic diversity of the membership. The current NCAA board is overwhelmingly white male and all of Emmert’s predecessors -- Walter Byers, Dick Schultz, Cedric Dempsey and Myles Brand -- were white males.
Such a radical transformation of the NCAA would be the right alteration from a management structure focused on achieving the goals of TV networks and conference commissioners, rather than on the educational and social advancement of the athletes who provide billions in revenue and exposure.