The topic of NCAA President Mark Emmert’s speech in Rijeka, Croatia, was familiar: challenges facing college sports in America. But the audience on that July day, and the questions they posed, were much different from his typical presentations back home.
In front of him were dozens of presidents from European universities, brought together for the biennial European University Games. Just 4 years old, the games are already the largest multisport student event on the continent and foster competition among more than 5,000 student-athletes from 400 universities in 40 countries. The presidents had invited Emmert to help them learn more about college sports in America. He provided familiar commentary about the need to preserve the opportunities college sports offer students in America while safeguarding their well-being, balancing the demands on their time and the integrity of academics.
They’re well-worn topics in the United States, subjects that often invite debate and criticism. But among this group, the questions took the conversation in a different direction: How could they create a system like American colleges already enjoy? How does athletics fit into the academic environment?
When Emmert boarded the plane to Croatia, he left a country that has wrestled with a different set of questions about college sports. In America, the questions raised by some groups often focus on fairness to student-athletes. Are they getting a good deal? Are they being properly protected from health concerns and being given every chance to succeed in their chosen fields of study?
The debates have reached a lull in recent months, but don’t let that cover up what is coming. This is just the eye of the storm. The next year likely is going to reignite debates about the future of college sports as concussion lawsuits stack up, an infractions decision settles a controversial academic scandal and an antitrust lawsuit advances through the court system. Those three topics alone have made enough noise to obscure views of college athletics’ most basic, and important, functions in American society.
Yet in Croatia, a purer vision could be seen. Athletes gathered in an Olympic atmosphere – some might compare it to the Division II championships festivals – in which the games were celebrated with opening and closing ceremonies, and guests were received with endless receptions. Dignitaries, including Croatian Prime Minister Tihomir Oreškovic, spoke of the importance of the competition, and how the power of fair play and fellowship can break mental, national, political and religious barriers.
Sport in Europe traditionally has remained separate from academics, the club sport model driving most of its nations’ athletic development. And it’s created a familiar problem: The demands on their students’ time is too intense, often forcing them to choose between continuing to play for their club or pursuing their degree. It’s a problem for which European university presidents are looking to American schools for guidance.
So Emmert spoke to the role athletics plays as the glue on college campuses, providing a natural bonding point for students to come together and cheer on representatives of their school, to bring back alumni and build pride in the university, and to engage people throughout campus. And rather than raise questions about the faults in the system and perceived antiquation of the amateurism concept, the presidents wanted to know how their schools could benefit by making that same model work in Europe.
And as Emmert boarded his plane to come back to familiar debates of college sports’ value, those questions stuck with him as a reminder that, no matter how imperfect the system may be, there are many people looking from afar and seeing something to which they aspire.