“What’s Emmert doing?”: A Q&A with the NCAA president

NCAA President Mark Emmert sat down for a 45-minute interview with The Associated Press this summer in which he addressed some of the issues facing college sports and specific critiques of his performance over 11 years leading the association. The following is portion of the session, lightly edited for clarity:

Question: Do conference commissioners, specifically the commissioners of the Power Five conferences, have more power to effect change in college sports than you?

Answer: I think that’s a really interesting concept. This notion of who’s in charge and who has power and who does and who doesn’t. Again, it in many ways just misses the whole point. From the beginning, clear back, you know, 120 some years ago (when the NCAA was formed in 1906), the principle behind college sports has always been that the schools are in charge of college sports.

It went back into the ’90s. The Knight Commission reforms reshaped the governance structure to reinforce the role of the university presidents to say this has got to be about the schools running college sports. All of the rules, all of the policies, all of the disciplinary actions, those those are all settled by independent members of the membership, you know, independent schools that are coming together and making those decisions through this representative bureaucracy.

(Conference commissioners are) all deeply involved as members of that process. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I’m more like the secretary-general of the United Nations. Right? I oversee this process. I shape it. I work all of that process, try to get people, them, to make decisions, not me. I don’t get to make those choices.

Q: People inside and outside of college sports often ask, “Why does Mark Emmert still have this job?” What is your reaction to that question?

A: First of all, there’s a lot of constituencies out there that I have to respond to. The Board of Governors and the 25 university presidents, leaders of all of those same institutions, representatives of five of the (Power Five) conferences, those are my bosses. That’s who I work for. They hire me. They fire me. That’s the group that evaluates me. My job is to work for those those board members and to serve the interests of their schools.

Now, having said that, of course, I care about the views and perspectives of practitioners, if you will, athletic directors and others. I try very hard to reach out to them and talk to them a lot and a lot of different ways and do that on a regular basis, understand their views, understand their perspectives. It’s certainly the case that there’s a lot to be frustrated with and disappointed in in college sports right now.

There’s no doubt that we are in a pivotal moment where not just moderate, but pretty dramatic changes are needed to accommodate the period that we’re in. The differences between the wealthiest schools and the least wealthy schools have never been higher. The legal problems and challenges that the schools are facing, not just the association — never been higher. The challenges around competitiveness and the ability to maintain sports, keep all your sports under your athletic department — never been higher. All of those tensions are rising. And I’m not surprised that people say, ‘You know, why isn’t this get fixed? What’s Emmert doing?’ You know, and people also, they want to look to somebody and say, ’Well, fix this, damn it.’ You know, and I get that. I understand. And I say it in the mirror sometimes. But the truth is, it’s a very complex system. I think we do need to find ways to fix that and streamline it.

Q: What is your reaction when you hear a high-ranking administrators in college sports such as Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick lament a “lack of industry leadership” in college sports?

A: I think it’s the single biggest frustration with this job to recognize that all of the decisions have to go through that deliberative process. There’s not a better solution, by the way, that I know of. There are those who say they want to have a czar. That’s a silly notion in my mind. There those who say there should be a czar of college sports and it should run like the NFL. Well, that’s a ludicrous notion if you know anything about American higher education. So you’re always going to have some kind of representative system through which all those decisions are made. … I can’t say this more clearly. There’s no decision around a rule, a policy, a decision to impose sanctions on a school, that’s made by anybody that works for the NCAA. Those are all made by schools.

Q: What is your ownership? What is your role?

A: It’s another important question. So let’s look at the NIL debate. It’s fresh on everybody’s mind. Nobody was happy with the way it ended because we had to put in temporary measures to deal with it July 1. That’s an issue that has been percolating along for multiple years. We reached a place in time a couple of years ago where we needed to begin to get serious about how to deal with this. And I was the one that brings together a group of people, both inside the governance structure and outside of it and start that conversation. … Give them the data they want. I certainly offer my opinions and my views in that conversation. Again, those were mostly commissioners sitting in that room having those debates and discussions, all of them from schools that were sitting there. They come up with models, they move it into the council. And I shepherd it, push it, cajole it, lead it to the extent I can. So it’s a delicate balance between providing leadership, not overstepping that boundary, recognizing the limitations of what you have authority over, and providing all the staff support to get those things done.

Q: One of the critiques of you is that you are too focused on public perception. What is your reaction to that?

A: Well, I disagree with that. But I mean, if you’re interested in public perception, you would never take this job. I think that would be pretty self-evident.

Q: There are those in college sports who attribute your ability to stay in this job so long to the fact that you are a former university president reporting to university presidents. That you are politically savvy and “speak their language.” What is your reaction to that assessment?

A: I assume the practitioners that you’re talking about are mostly athletic directors and commissioners. And what I have in common with them is we all work for university presidents. So if a commissioner is incapable of speaking to his presidents in language that they understand, then I suggest that that commission is not doing a very good job. If a commissioner thinks I’m shouldn’t be the guy in charge, his president is sitting on my board. Well, his president seems to disagree. So is that because I’m some Svengali or is that because they think I’m doing a good job?

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