You are here

2015 NCAA State of the Association

MARK EMMERT:  We have an opportunity and obligation and challenge to lead college sports in easily one of its most important moments in history.  I believe, and many of you do as well, that the next three or four years are going to be defining years to set the stage for what college sports will look like for the foreseeable future, for decades, not years, and perhaps it will shape it for the entirety of the 21st century. 

There are lots of drivers as to why that's so, that make this moment such an important moment.  Walt touched on some of them.  We have a legal environment that's challenging in so many ways.  We have a financial environment for both higher education and for intercollegiate athletics where we have seen significant, dramatic growth in revenues on the one hand, and on the other hand we've seen great concern and struggles by programs across all three divisions ….
We see political dynamics going on both at the state level and even at the local level -- state, local, and of course potentially at the federal level -- that could shape the environment in ways that we may or may not like. 

We live now in a world of media scrutiny and attention that's like nothing that's ever been seen before, particularly with 24‑hour news and information, sports services and with social media, that makes it extremely difficult to avoid controversy or scandals of any kind blowing up in an enormous fashion on us. 

With that comes an increasingly skeptical public.  Public opinion about college sports is extremely positive on the one hand.  There has never been more attention given to or passion for college sports, and simultaneously there has perhaps never been as much skepticism. 

Finally, we of course run athletics in the context of higher education, and this is a very dramatic moment for higher education.  The future of higher education is challenged in many ways by a variety of different modes of delivering higher education -- by economic challenges, by demographic changes, by new demands that are being placed on all of our colleges and universities that hadn't been there before. 

Any way you look at all those issues, any way you shape them, we don't have the luxury of determining the pace of change that's going on around us.  We have seen pretty dramatic change already early into the 21st century, and we're likely to see it accelerate even in the next handful of years. 

We can't sit still.  But while we're embracing change and while we're saying that's fine, we're ready to move forward and do things differently, we also have to stay focused on the core values that differentiate intercollegiate athletics from all other activities in the world.  We need to be both flexible and adaptable, while we simultaneously remain steadfast to the commitment that we all have to student‑athletes and their success. 

Now, perhaps the biggest challenge that's before us is the fact that what you all experience as academic and athletic administrators and the way you experience and see college athletics is not at all what the public and many people outside our enterprise view college sports.  If you as college leaders were asked how many student‑athletes are there, you can cite the statistic; there are 460,000.  You know there are 460,000 of them, you know the complexity of Divisions I, II and  III, you know the breadth of the sports and the nature of what college sports is all about. 

But the public has a very different perspective on all that.  The public knows about what it sees on television.  That's natural enough.  It's not a critique, it's a fact.  What the public predominantly knows is Saturday afternoon -- increasingly early Saturday afternoon through the evening in the fall -- football on a national scale, then Division I men's basketball from this point of the year going forward into the tournament.  That's what they see on a regular basis.  That's the subject of talk radio and all of the discussions and articles.  It's about Division I football at the highest level and men's basketball being played in Division I.  That's the perspective that the world has on what is college sport and college athletes. 

Here is what we know: The student‑athletes who play those games in FBS football and men's basketball, and show up on national TV, constitute three percent of the total of NCAA athletes.  But that's how the world sees it.  It sees the sliver of three percent, and when you look at the world of what are the issues and the challenges of three percent, you get one set of answers to what the solution may be to any problem.  If you look at it from the perspective of the 97 percent, the vast majority, you see other issues and other concerns and other challenges. 

For us, as we make decisions, as you collectively and each of your governing bodies make decisions, we need to make sure that the success of the three percent doesn't come at the cost of the 97 percent. 

Conversely, we need to make sure that the success of the 97 percent doesn't come at the expense of the three percent.  We need to figure out how all 100 percent can thrive in the 21st century.  That's not an easy task. 

You can applaud either one of those now.  I didn't mean to kill the spontaneous applause line, but I managed to do it!  (Laughter.)

We made a lot of change and success over the past three years, and I don't mean just in bylaws or policy actions.  We have also made a lot of change in the way we think about some of these issues and even some of the philosophical approaches we bring to a number of issues.  Let me give you an example of what I mean. 

If you think about in Division I, for example, three years ago there was a policy, a bylaw, that said multiple scholarships are forbidden, a policy that had been in place for I think 40 years.  It was largely a given that that is the way Division I should be run.  Fast forward 36 months and not only after a lot of debate and discussion, hard debate and discussion.  Fast forward 36 months and not only are they allowed, we have institutions that guarantee them and we have whole conferences now that are saying if you're going to be a member of our conference, you must provide multiple‑year scholarships, and that transition after the first debate was relatively rapid. 

The same thing with the work of Walter Harrison and his colleagues.  Walt and his colleagues brought us to where we were about three or four years ago with a lot of hard work and dedication, and there was a sense that, okay, we achieved a great deal.  But when the statistics were brought forward and the success seen, there were still big gaps and a lot of debate was brought forward, and rather than just talk about raising initial eligibility requirements and APR standards, which happened, the committee on academic performance and the leadership groups and the DI board said -- and DII board by the way is embracing the same notion -- if you're even going to qualify as a team to participate in postseason play, you have to be on track to graduate half of your students.  It's no longer a student responsibility, it's a team and an institutional responsibility if you're going to participate in college sports. 

Look at the transition in Divisions I and II around food rules.  I think three years ago, four years ago, there were few things more aggravating to most people than the rules that governed the ability to provide food to student‑athletes.  There were ‑‑ I mean, we can tell jokes about it, we did tell jokes about the rules around food because they simply didn't make a lot of sense, and the notion that the national governing bodies should be the ones to regulate what can and cannot be provided in food, we move from a very strict set of policies to one now that says that's not something we should decide at the national level, that's a local decision you provide student‑athletes with what makes sense for your institution, a huge shift. 

You look at the shift in our leadership role around concussions and health and wellness.  So the NCAA has always been a leader in setting policies for health and wellness and concussion work.  It's one of the reasons that the Association was founded more than 100 years ago to protect back then just young men from injury.  That's a role that we've always taken great pride in.  But over the past handful of years, we've seen a movement from just saying we need to be the leaders in policymaking to also we need to be the leaders in helping medicine and science understand injury and understand wellness. 

If you look at concussions alone, we sadly as a society don't have good knowledge and understanding of what concussions are, how they happen, how you recover from them, what their ‑‑ as the docs would say, medical history is.  And the NCAA has now moved into a leadership role where it's forming coalitions and providing the resources to understand what that's all about, moving from shaping policy to helping move the science forward with the participation of many of the universities and colleges in this room.  That's a huge change. 

Similarly when you look at the football guidelines that have been put in place, they weren't done by the football community or just by this governing body, they were done in collaboration with and in partnership with the best medical minds and evidence that we could accumulate. 

Same thing finally in compliance.  We've seen philosophical shifts and operational shifts in the way the compliance regime works inside the NCAA, and we're likely to see more, but today there is greater clarity, faster resolution, more flexibility.  There is greater focus on individual responsibility than there was not long ago -- that's been a great, big change. 


Lastly, let me say the change that we have seen in the way you all conduct your governance business has moved pretty rapidly in a pretty short period of time.  Division I is now following the lead of Divisions II and III with a whole new structure that embraces practitioners and brings athletic directors and senior women's administrators and faculty reps into the fold to have a greater voice in Division I.  Divisions I and II are following Division III in creating new roles for students not just to have a voice in the process, but to have student‑athletes voting on legislation and engaged directly in the decision‑making process that Division III has had for some time now.  And in governance, we have seen in Division I a huge philosophical shift in decision making by providing greater authority to the five high-resource conferences in allowing them to address concerns about student welfare.  Any way you look at it, these have been significant shifts, and many of these would have been hard to imagine let alone to implement four years ago.  The Association has accomplished a great deal, surely, and we're all pleased with that, but we've also got big issues to consider. 

Let me raise a couple of quick issues that I think we need to embrace.  First of all, the opportunities to play college sports have grown consistently over the past decades. 

The question before us today is can we continue that expansion of opportunity?  Can we even maintain what we have now, particularly the opportunities for women and those in nonrevenue sports given the challenges in front of us?   As a body we need to wrestle with that question. 

We need to look at the relationship between college sports and professional sports.  Perhaps there is a different way for us to work together when we consider that we support students’ -- all students on our campuses -- professional aspirations in pretty much every field whether it's engineering, medicine, teaching.  We work very hard to make sure those students are well prepared for their professional field by having them embrace that professional field but not in athletics. 

College athletes often have incredibly unrealistic perceptions of their professional prospects.  We know from some of our survey work, for example, that 75 percent, 75 percent of Division I men's basketball players believe they're going to play professional basketball, 75 percent.  Fifty percent of Division II men's basketball players believe they're going to play professional basketball, 21 percent of Division III men's basketball players respond to surveys saying I'm going to play professional basketball. 

How can we help them understand the realities of what that looks like?  What can we change to give them a more realistic sense of it?  Can we work with professional sports organizations to offer better opportunities for our college athletes to assess their potential?  How do we get a handle on that?  How can we provide them with a greater sense of the realities and what that looks like?  And a related question that's being discussed a little bit now, but I think we need to consider the options of what can we do, is the question of agents and advisors for people that we know have been anxious to become engaged with our athletes but the relationships are challenging to say the least in all kinds of ways. 

Should we look at that differently than we do today, which is essentially we build a wall and say that relationship cannot and shouldn't exist? 

Fourth, the most important core value of the NCAA is the one that President Harrison talked about and that's that NCAA athletes are students, not just athletes.  All three divisions in this room have worked very hard and in many ways with lots of strong leaders to constantly reinforce that value, but we know that even with that success we still have challenges in front of us.  We know that student‑athletes often have too little time.  We know that the fact that they have too little time shapes their choices of majors and courses and whether or not they can participate in internships or any other activities.  We know that some arrive insufficiently prepared for the rigors of academic work and athletic work. 

The question we need to wrestle with going forward is do we continue to adjust existing policies, or do we need to consider new approaches, bolder or broader approaches than we have in the past, to change some of those relationships?  We have for years, for example, had discussions off and on throughout the Association about whether we should return to freshman eligibility to acclimate students to academic life.  That, too, brings with it many challenges and obstacles, but regardless of whatever the policy option is we have to continue to centralize the centrality of academic success as the touchstone for why we participate in collegiate athletics.  These and many others are the questions that we all face as we get together here in 2015. 

All of them need to be addressed in manners that reflect the reality of what goes on on campuses, the realities of the lives of our student‑athletes and what helps those 460,000 young men and women to be successful.  So also tonight I want to bring forward onto the stage leaders from all three divisions and from the Board of Governors to offer their views on these and other topics.  Please join me in welcoming to the stage, first, the president of Wake Forest University and chair of the Division I Board of Directors, Nathan Hatch.  The president of Grand Valley State University and Division II Presidents Council chair, Thomas Haas.  The president of Whittier College and Division III Presidents Council chair, Sharon Herzberger, and lastly I will bring back President Simon from Michigan State.