One of Mark Emmert's go-to lines when talking about his role as NCAA president and the extent of his power to lead the association is to explain how those outside college sports mistakenly believe his job is similar to that of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Tom McMillen, the former Maryland basketball player and congressman who now leads the Lead1 association of Division I athletic directors, summed up the NCAA presidency this way: “The job is tough. Expectations without power.”
Emmert announced Tuesday he was stepping down from the job he has held for the past 12 years by June 2023, depending on how quickly a replacement is found.
Before the NCAA chooses its next president and determines the skills and characteristics it wants from a new leader, the decision-makers for the nation's largest governing body in college athltics must first decide what they want the NCAA to be and to do.
“I think it’s a little bit premature to define the characteristics you’d be looking for in a leader without really getting through whatever is described as the restructuring, transformation, re-reinvention process,” former Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said Wednesday.
The NCAA is in currently reshaping Division I —- the wealthiest and most prominent level of college sports, de-emphasizing the role of the national office and handing more power to conferences and schools. A new, streamlined constitution was ratified in January, opening the door for each of the NCAA's three divisions to govern themselves.
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The Division I transformation committee, co-chaired by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey and Ohio University athletic director Julie Cromer, has been meeting weekly and is expected to deliver a report with proposed reforms by August.
The 21-member panel has been charged with examining what should be required of Division I schools, what benefits athletes should receive, how rules should be made and enforced, and how revenue should be shared.
All of this activity comes as the NCAA's ability to govern has been undercut by loss after loss in court, most notably last year's unanimous Supreme Court ruling against the association.
“It’s obviously a very different job than it was 12 years ago or even eight years ago,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And the role of the NCAA president may be significantly diminished if the decentralization efforts continue and the authority moves more toward the conferences.”
Feldman added: “But it doesn’t matter how good the leader is. The captain of the ship can’t navigate the ship if they don’t have a map and if there are holes all over the ship.”
Emmert’s role during a decade of sweeping upheaval in college sports was to lead an association that governed by representative democracy. There are more than 1,100 member schools serving nearly 500,000 athletes. It’s a slow-moving bureaucracy, with a wildly diverse membership — even just within Division I's 350 schools.
The role of the NCAA going forward could be to simply run championships, including the management of media rights deals for those big-ticket events such as the March Madness basketball tournaments.
If that's the case, is an NCAA president — or CEO or executive director —- even necessary?
“I think if we want to continue having March Madness the way we've had it, if we want to continue having the coordination among the schools, if we want to continue to have this, at least in theory, being education first and academic institutions competing athletically, then yes, I think it is beneficial to have a central figure over all of it,” Feldman said. “But if this becomes more conference-based, then potentially no.”
McMillen said he believes a central governing body with a leader will remain necessary.
“You need someone first of all that can articulate a vision of what college sports should be, and I don’t think that vision is to be mirror images of the NBA or the NFL for basketball and football," McMillen said. "It's to be a derivation of higher education."
To McMillen, the NCAA's next leader will need to be someone who has or can build good relationships with lawmakers in Washington. Emmert had become a punching bag for politicians on both sides of the aisle while pleading for a federal law to regulate athlete compensation.
The NCAA's next leader will also need to be able to collaborate with conference commissioners, especially those of the Power Five leagues such as the SEC and Big Ten.
“They've become power sources of their own,” McMillen said. “And you have to be extremely collaborative because no one really, truly, is ultimately in control. It’s very diffused.”
Feldman suggested the time might be right for the leader of the NCAA to come from outside college sports.
“What we’ve seen over the last 10 years is judges, legislators, governmental agencies are looking at college sports and seeing something different than those within college sports have seen over the last 20, 30 years,” Feldman said. “They are seeing a more commercial enterprise that looks more like professional sports.
“It may be beneficial for someone to be able to look at this enterprise with a fresh set of eyes and explain what it looks like to the non-insider,” he said.
But why would anyone want the job during such a chaotic time in college sports?
Len Elmore, the former Maryland basketball player who co-chairs the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said the NCAA will have to find someone with a sense of duty to the mission of protecting college athletics.
“There’s a mountain to climb,” Elmore said. “And there are a lot of people who want to reach the pinnacle the right way.”
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