At the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute’s Commissioners’ Series on Nov. 10, Mark A. Emmert told the audience about a conversation he had with his grown son when he was considering taking the job of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) president. He said his son was correct when he compared the position to the secretary general of the United Nations. Dealing with approximately 1,100 member universities and 400,000 student athletes in three divisions of competition certainly requires diplomacy and exceptional management skills. "To say it’s challenging is an understatement," Emmert said.
The annual event, hosted by SBI Executive Director David Carter, drew an audience of current and aspiring sports industry professionals, including executives from event-sponsors FOX Sports and Lightfoot Franklin White, as well as student-athletes and senior administrators from other California universities. Emmert was invited to discuss the current state and future direction of the NCAA and college athletics in the context of leadership, ethics and business.
Emmert, who has had a long career as an administrator in higher education, remarked that he went to college and never left — until October 2010 when he became the fifth president of the NCAA.
"As president of the University of Washington and chancellor of Louisiana State University, he has presided over two NCAA member schools with championship Division I football teams," said Chairman of the USC Board of Trustees and SBI Advisory Board member Edward Roski in his introduction. "Dr. Emmert understands the challenges universities face today in this new era of college sports."
During a discussion that spanned from the Penn State football scandal to the financial realities of Division I athletics, Emmert explained that the NCAA faces a fundamental image problem. "We have a huge communication problem in that not enough people understand who we are and what we do and why we do it," he said. To set the record straight, he said the NCAA is not analogous to the NBA or MLB or NFL, and not a state agency with police powers and subpoena powers. It is a voluntary organization that engages in self-policing and self-governing, where the members set the rules and share authority.
"I don’t think people have an understanding of the level to which we actually worry about, think about and spend time and energy on the success of young men and women. That’s our job," Emmert said.
He also was eager to dispel some myths. The primary criticism Emmert hears repeatedly is that student-athletes are not good students, while in fact, he said, "student-athletes at virtually every Division I university in America in virtually every sport have higher graduation rates than non-athletes," though admittedly "we have issues where we don’t have as high performance as we want in football and men’s basketball."
Furthermore, Emmert stressed that it is not the NCAA’s job simply to train athletes for professional sports. The fact is, he said, this year 5,500 students will play men’s basketball in Division I and only 50 will go to the NBA draft.
In addition, when it comes to money, he said, there are numerous misconceptions. "Everyone thinks that every university makes scads of money off of football. That’s true for about 50 of the Division I football programs; 40 percent lose money," he explained. "Last year there were 17 schools in America that had positive cash flow in their athletic department."
The reason people see dollar signs when they hear NCAA is because the top 50 football and men’s basketball programs receive all the media attention. Those programs represent only the upper quartile of Division I, which includes programs with budgets ranging from $5 million to $155 million and a "small slice of people that are very highly compensated," Emmert explained.
College athletics definitely has "big revenue," Emmert admitted, but 96% of the millions of dollars that flow into the NCAA from basketball contracts, for instance, "passes right through our office and goes back out either directly or indirectly to universities to support all the programs of student athletes."
Addressing the current debate about whether student-athletes should be paid, Emmert said, "It’s an absolute non-starter; you couldn’t find in America one university president that thinks that’s even a reasonable philosophical construct let alone a practical one."