Mark Emmert’s 12-year tenure as the head of the NCAA is coming to a close. Emmert and the NCAA’s Board of Governors announced Tuesday that he will be stepping down from his role as president by June 2023, or sooner if his replacement is found before then.
Emmert, 69, has spent the entirety of his career in higher education and oversaw a period of dramatic change for college sports during his time with the NCAA. Revenue for the national office and the country’s most powerful athletic departments exploded during Emmert’s decade in charge. At a far slower pace, the foundational principle of amateurism shrank, eroded largely by legal battles and changing public sentiment.
The power of his position seemingly eroded as well during a tenure that ended with criticism for the national office’s inability to modernize its outdated rules and its inability to effectively enforce the rules it did have. The degree to which Emmert himself is responsible for any of these changes is open to debate, but the bigger questions about Emmert’s time in charge of college sports are about the future. In what shape did he leave the office he’s now vacating? And what type of organization will his replacement be asked to lead?
What major issues will a new NCAA president inherit?
NCAA board members are now faced with the unenviable task of conducting a job search without much of a job description to share with their candidates. All three of the NCAA’s divisions are in the process of overhauling their rulebooks after the membership voted in January to rewrite their constitution in an effort to streamline and decentralize an antiquated governing process.
It’s unclear — and is likely to remain unclear for at least the next several months — what kind of power the new NCAA president will hold as the college sports industry attempts to regain its footing after a year of tumultuous change. Last June, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the NCAA’s argument that college sports leaders should be given free rein to collaborate on rules that place limits on some of the things that schools can provide to their athletes. The decision was limited in its immediate impact, but has left the leaders of college sports paralyzed by a fear of further antitrust lawsuits during a time that will demand significant action.
A lack of nationwide oversight combined with rule changes allowing athletes to make money in new ways and transfer to new schools more freely is threatening to erase whatever bits of blurred lines remain (if any remain at all) between the top end of college sports from professional leagues.
Emmert and other leaders have pinned their hopes of regaining control on receiving help from Congress. The NCAA has asked for a federal law that will allow them to regulate the new “collegiate model” of college sports. They are asking for big favors at a time when the NCAA’s credibility on Capitol Hill has been hurt by the embarrassing gender inequities in last year’s March Madness tournaments, the skyrocketing salaries of football coaches, increasing concerns about athletes’ well-being and myriad other issues that have made the leaders of college sports a largely unsympathetic bunch in the eyes of politicians and the general public. — Daniel Murphy
What else could be landing in the lap of the next president?
More threats to the NCAA’s business model remain on the horizon. Along with additional antitrust lawsuits, the organization is also just starting to defend against multiple attempts to reclassify some college athletes as employees of their schools. That combination is likely to leave a new president unable to make rules that slow down the money that boosters and schools are steering into the pockets of athletes while also trying to convince the National Labor Relations Board that those same athletes are students rather than workers in a multibillion dollar industry.
Managing the would-be employers in that equation won’t be a simple task either. The richest and most powerful conferences in schools have already started to question if they still fit comfortably in the confines of the NCAA’s current top division. Those entities will only become richer and powerful during a new president’s tenure as they sign new media rights contracts and potentially revamp the College Football Playoff — two decisions over which the NCAA president has no control.
The layers of uncertainty create an opportunity for the leaders of college sports to reshape their business in almost any way they would like, but also make it increasingly unlikely that the driver’s seat for that process will be located in the president’s office in Indianapolis. The future president could find themselves in a position where they are carrying much of the burden of the NCAA’s problems without the ability to decide on the solutions. — Murphy
What should be the role of the NCAA moving forward?
Mark Schlabach: The toothpaste is out of the tube and it’s not going back in. For years, I’ve been told that major college sports is headed toward another major division break, between the big boys in college football and the have-nots, and it’s probably going to happen sooner rather than later. If the Power 5 conferences want to allow the NCAA to stage national basketball tournaments and championships in other sports, that’s about the only way I can see a significantly relevant NCAA surviving. It has bungled just about everything else under Emmert’s watch, from fighting an outdated amateurism model in the courts (and losing hundreds of millions in dollars in legal fees and plaintiffs’ awards) to picking and choosing which schools to penalize for campus-wide sexual assault scandals to introducing a new enforcement process, the Independent Accountability Resolution Process, that added months, if not years, to the adjudication of significant infractions cases. I don’t think anyone can accurately predict what the NCAA is going to look like a year from now.
Adam Rittenberg: If the break Schlabach outlines is inevitable, and it seems very likely, the NCAA might be best served putting on championships and staying out of the way. The convoluted structure, slow pace and inability to predict changing attitudes — both within college sports and publicly/politically — has placed the association in such a weak position. There’s a growing appetite among some of the biggest schools to operate away from the NCAA as much as possible. But if the NCAA somehow names a bold, progressive president who can repair relationships with some commissioners, top athletic directors and other power brokers, perhaps there are other areas the NCAA can impact.
Chris Low: I would say being more efficient, timely and consistent when it comes to enforcing NCAA rules. But what are the rules now? Better yet, is there even a way to enforce rules in the NIL era? At the very least, the NCAA has to find a way to provide some structure to the current climate, not necessarily limit what athletes can earn once they’re on campus, but regulate the way NIL attorneys and agents are setting up deals to steer kids to certain schools when they’re still high school juniors. How the NCAA didn’t see NIL becoming a recruiting inducement from the beginning says all you need to know about how out of touch the NCAA has been with the changing landscape of college athletics.
Mechelle Voepel: It took public embarrassment during the 2021 NCAA basketball tournaments for Emmert to show interest in the women’s event. The inequities between the men and women were obvious and stark, which put the NCAA into damage-control mode. At that point, those in the women’s basketball world had to question if Emmert was very sincere in his concern, but there was a “better-late-than-never” sentiment. And the NCAA’s decision to commission the so-called Kaplan report, which did a deep dive into inequities in all men’s and women’s NCAA championships, was an important step because it didn’t pull any punches about how significant those issues have been.
The report also said the NCAA has been selling women’s sports short regarding potential television revenue. When it’s time to negotiate TV rights again, rather than selling multiple championships in a bargain bundle, the NCAA needs to think bigger about the worth of each championship and how best to maximize revenue from it. Also, the NCAA has to show more leadership regarding the inclusion of transgender athletes in competition. As with so many things, the NCAA has been behind on this.
Dave Wilson: The next leader is going to have to get creative to figure out the mess of issues currently embroiling college sports, or finally just step out of the way and put on tournaments. One coach recently told me, “In all the threats facing the NCAA over the years, I’ve always been optimistic. I’ve never once said we can’t continue on if things keep going the way they were. I’ve always wanted players to get their due and their fair share. But there used to be a skill involved in building a program. Now that’s not a skill at all. It’s whoever can go out and buy the best team. And all the work we did on APR and graduation rates, that was for the kids. And it worked. And that’s all out the window.” So the next person will have to find a way to keep the best coaches and staffers in college football despite a 24/7, 365-day calendar now. And ideally, they’d have the political skills to try to wrangle a national solution for the varying slates of laws affecting amateur athletics across the country.
Paolo Uggetti: Frankly, catch up. Or at least try to. As the rest of my colleagues have put it, this NCAA has done nearly everything in its power to look slow and incompetent the past few years. Their way of handling nearly every major issue college athletics has faced has been, at best, archaic, and at worst, willfully malicious. It’s hard to imagine just how its reputation and standing could be worse at such a crucial time in college sports; it’s also hard to fathom what it can do now to get better. Yet for as bad as things are, there still could be value in a governing body that accepted the realities of the entities it claims to police instead of trying to squash them in the name of amateurism. I mean, college athletes are now selling their own licensed apparel at their program’s spring games — the cat is all the way out of the “student-athlete” bag. It might be too late to turn back the clock and fix things under a new president, but if the NCAA was serious about wanting to evolve, it could start by simply appointing someone who believes the athletes are closer to equals who need to be heard and valued than subordinates who need to be controlled.
In a world where power is concentrated with conference presidents, what does a successful NCAA presidency look like?
Rittenberg: A successful NCAA president must inform and protect the school presidents, but also connect better with conference commissioners who essentially control the money and the most important sports, namely football. The next president must push a more aggressive agenda to get things done and be more mindful of what lies ahead in such a turbulent landscape. The inability to get ahead on name, image and likeness and other major areas ultimately doomed Emmert’s tenure and damaged confidence in the association, outside of the presidents. This is a largely thankless job, but the NCAA needs someone who can communicate with the presidents and not bother them too much, but also work much better with the practitioners who will shape the future.
Schlabach: In Emmert’s defense, I’m not sure there’s a more unrewarding position in sports than being the NCAA president. Emmert took the public’s wrath when things didn’t go well, but he was only doing what member institutions were asking him to do. The NCAA’s biggest failures were fighting amateurism in courts and not getting ahead of name, image and likeness. Power has shifted squarely to the shoulders of the most powerful conference commissioners, and I’m not sure that’s ever going to change.
Low: Talk about thankless (and, yes) well-paying jobs. Emmert’s successor needs to be able to work more closely with the conference commissioners and be more of a visionary of what lies ahead for college athletics. Either way, college football is almost certainly headed toward a super division of 40 to 60 teams in the future, and the most important position in college sports will likely be the commissioner of that super division in football and not necessarily the NCAA president.
Wilson: The NCAA president, much like Roger Goodell in the NFL, is paid handsomely to take the bullets for the presidents. But critics of Emmert say he didn’t take all the bullets and instead vacillated on issues depending on who applied the most pressure. The most important thing the NCAA needs is a strong leader who is visible and can make a strong case for the organization’s positions.
Uggetti: I wouldn’t wish this job on my worst enemy, but in an ideal world, the NCAA president would at least be someone more forward-thinking and transparent. I agree with Adam that efficiency seems to be a big area of improvement, and I also believe that NIL and say, Oklahoma’s and Texas’s move to the SEC for example, are just the tip of the iceberg. We’re only a few degrees away from a proposed super league and players making pro-level money either by way of endorsements or other sources. Even if an NCAA president wouldn’t exactly welcome such changes, having someone who could work in tandem with conference commissioners, school presidents and athletes to provide structure to those shifts would go a long way toward turning this organization from a dinosaur into an active participant in the evolution of college sports.
Voepel: While not being naive about the fact that college sports are big business, I hope the next president is much more in touch with actual student-athletes and what they want and need. Student-athletes are more powerful than ever because of NIL opportunities and the transfer portal. But they also seem more troubled than ever by stress/mental health concerns. And if some of the tragedies we have seen in recent years in that regard don’t seriously alarm the NCAA, they should. On top of everything else the new president has to navigate, concern for and communication with student-athletes needs to be a bigger priority. Isn’t this whole thing supposed to be for and about them?
Who will the NCAA consider for its next president?
ESPN spoke to both a school president and athletic director on Tuesday who reiterated one of this obvious legacies from Emmert’s tenure — being the NCAA president is not a coveted job.
Emmert himself entered the role with ambition and big ideas, only to end up spending the majority of his final years taking bullets for college presidents and flubbing seemingly every public appearance.
Finding the next NCAA president will not be easy.
One athletic director told ESPN: “The big question is, ‘Who would really want that job?’ My question is, ‘Do they bring someone in for 2-3 years that’s trusted to get everyone through the choppy waters? Or do they go long term?'”
A short-term option could be someone like former Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby or former NCAA executive Oliver Luck. They both know how thankless the job is, but they also still are true believers in college athletics. A popular internal option would be Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball who is the association’s most respected employee.
The NCAA could also continue to go the route of college presidents, which has been the prior model the past two full-time presidents — Myles Brand and Emmert. Washington State’s Kirk Schultz, Baylor’s Linda Livingstone and Clemson’s Jim Clements are a few of more prominent presidents in the athletics realm. — Pete Thamel