Student-athlete well-being has long been considered at the highest levels of NCAA decision-making. But a new governance structure proposed for Division I means that – for the first time – its student-athletes won’t just have a voice; they’ll also have a vote. At this critical moment in the history of the student-athlete voice, Association President Mark Emmert sat down with representatives from each division’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee for a frank discussion about the delicate balance between scholarly and athletic pursuits.
Catastrophic insurance policies for them date back to 1951, but the notion of student-athletes having a voice in NCAA governance did not gain traction until the late 1980s.
Chelsea Shoemaker: Obviously we are very proud to say in Division III that we balance our athletic and our academic focus. But I think that increasingly, our mental health and finding a balance between classes and the athletic field is something that we’re concerned about. How do you feel schools are managing this balance – not just at the Division III level, but also in Division I and Division II, where their commitment to athletics is a little bit higher?
Mark Emmert: I think it’s one of the biggest problems facing college athletics. But I don’t think it’s just college athletics’ problem. It’s youth sports, too. Some of the habits and expectations are getting set now at a very young age, and you all, I’m sure, experienced this as you were learning to be athletes. You look at the club sports that have kicked in now at 8, 9, 10 years of age, and you’re competing 12 months out of the year, all the time. It’s becoming an industry. There are all these camps and all these clubs and all these programs, and it’s just sucking up every waking hour that a young person has. Then you get into college, and it continues on.
I was chatting with some Division I men’s basketball players just before the tournament began, and we were talking about the same issue. One of them was a freshman, and just out of curiosity, I asked, “Last year when you were in high school, how many games did you play?” He thought about that, and he said, “At least 150.” Now think about that for a minute. He played 150 games out of 365 days. That’s crazy.
We need to find some way to start to put that back in perspective. I don’t know exactly what that looks like. We have the 20-hour rule for Division I in terms of coaching contact. But we also know there’s voluntary activity that goes on outside of that. Some of that doesn’t feel voluntary. One football coach a year or so ago famously said, “Yeah, it’s voluntary, and so’s the starting lineup.” That tells you every message you need to know, right? We’ve got to get the coaches to figure that out. Frankly, I think we’ve got to figure out – and I’d love your thoughts on this – how we, to a certain extent, protect you from yourself because you’re all really, really competitive. You all want to not just be a starter; you want to win. You know that if you’re not working out, your competitor might be working out. How do we force a balance without adding more stress in your life? I’ve got all three divisions here. What would you all like to see in terms of time? If you could wave a wand and pass the rules, what would work for you?
Dustin Page: I think setting times where you’re not allowed to work out or periods where you’re not allowed to play your sport isn’t necessarily the most beneficial route. I think a lot of it comes from limiting what coaches can do in offseasons. Also, a lot of it comes from top-down, from athletics directors or from coaches. With all the discussion about the amount of money in sports, something to look into might be limiting the amount of bonuses that coaches and athletics directors can receive from strictly athletic competition, or at least balancing that with the academic side of things and having academic bonuses rather than all athletic bonuses for those positions.
Emmert: It seems like it ought to be really easy to reward universities or coaches based on academic performance, doesn’t it? We’ve had a lot of debate about this question, and as we’ve sat down and thought about it, we say, “All right, well, is it grade-point averages or graduation rates?” If the answer is graduation rates, you might as well just give all the money to the Ivy League because they’ve got a 96-98 percent graduation rate, so that’s not right. A lot of schools have lower graduation rates, but if their athletes are graduating at 60 percent, you’d say, “Wow, that was really great because the school’s graduation rate is 40 percent.” What metric do you use for rewarding that? That’s one of our challenges, but we need to wrestle with it.
Shoemaker: The NCAA as a whole could do more to bridge the gap on campuses between their academic sides and their athletic departments. I find as a student-athlete that you learn a lot on the field and on your teams that you will never learn in a classroom. I’d like to see the academic side recognize that and work a little bit more eagerly to let student-athletes complete all of their work but also feel that they can go to their athletic competitions.
Emmert: Do you all also feel that way? That the academic side – your faculty and people around your academics – don’t value your athletic experience as highly as you think they might?
Shanteona Keys: I think at Division II the emphasis is the life in the balance, being a student and an athlete. With our faculty athletics representatives and the people on our campus, there’s an open line of communication. With the Path to Graduation legislation last year, we as a SAAC, we wrestled with whether to push the limit to move it up three more credit hours a year based on what the students can actually fit into an academic year, and whether we’re representing what we want in the future as far as academic progression and graduation rates. Or to just try to think, “Life in the balance. You’re here for both school and sports.”
Page: When it comes to individual professors, it’s hit or miss. Some professors are more than supportive of the athletic department and are really willing to sit down and say, “OK, you have to travel. How can I accommodate? How can I help you out and allow you to make up this test, or make up this work?” You get others who say, “Well, it’s a quiz. You missed it. You can’t make it up; that’s just the way it is.” Overall professors are dedicated to their jobs, which is making us learn the material, and whether or not they see the athletic side of things is on a person-to-person basis.
Keys: My professors have been pretty forgiving as far as making up things. I haven’t run into any problems or heard anyone say that their teachers weren’t forgiving for missed quizzes, or other conflicts.
Page: Part of that falls on the student-athlete, too, taking the time out to get a personal relationship with that professor. I think a lot of times they expect the professor to reach out to them. Well, hey, you’re the student. You’re taking the class. You’ve got to reach out and build that relationship with the professor.
Emmert: What about the concerns that you don’t have time for internships, or you don’t have time for study abroad, or for a lot of the other things? When combined with your athletic experience, those will make you a killer candidate for a job, or for graduate school, or for whatever you’re going to do. Ninety-nine percent of you are not going to be professional athletes, so this is all about setting you up for success for the remaining years of your life.
Shoemaker: In Division III, I think we do a great job across the country of making sure student-athletes have an opportunity to participate in other things outside of their sports. I think the NCAA does a great job of trickling down that message. I know a lot of friends and former teammates who were able to study abroad as well as complete internships across the country or even the world.
Page: Specifically for my sport, men’s soccer, I have most of my summer. We go back a little bit earlier and start preseason, but I have most of my summer to work internships. But for sports like football where you’re playing during the summer and you have to live on campus, I definitely see that as an issue. There are a lot of student-athletes who might not be able to get internships because of their commitments over the summer and in the offseason.
Keys: We’re not allowed to practice during the summer. There’s not a problem as far as summer internships, but I can see it being a problem for a fall athlete who wants to study abroad in the spring. That’s probably not possible because of the offseason commitment.
Shoemaker: One of the big things we have talked about in DIII SAAC is student-athletes coming out and identifying themselves as LGBTQ or as straight allies who are in support of their teammates and their friends. As national SAAC members, we represent so many student-athletes across the country. We were wondering how we could better serve members of that community. I was wondering what your personal opinion is from an NCAA standpoint.
Emmert: I can’t imagine anything more powerful for individual student-athletes than having you all support them because we know when we need emotional support and friends, we want them to be our peers more than anyone else. Having a sportswriter write a nice piece about you and what you did or having me give some nice speech about it is good and welcome. But having other student-athletes say, “Yeah, we’re here with you. We’re OK with you. We’re your colleagues and your teammates.” I think nothing is more powerful than that. I think what you’re proposing is a really wonderful idea. How do you execute on it? I’m not sure. Obviously there have always been gay athletes. Only recently have they felt sufficiently comfortable to come out in an environment that’s not always welcoming. At the University of Washington, we had an alumnus who went on to play in the NFL, and he was one of the first former NFL players to come out. He didn’t while he was a player, and he and I have sat and chatted about this and he said, “I just couldn’t while I was a player. It just wasn’t going to work.” Now they can, and you’ve got players in college doing it. I think we just need to send the message that this is a safe environment to do that.
Keys: If the NBA dropped the one-and-done rule, and made it so you could just go pro straight out of high school, do you think that would affect the revenue for the basketball Final Four?
Emmert: No, not at all.
Emmert: LeBron went. Kobe went. We still had pretty good Final Fours those years. The very best players – that small, small number of high school seniors who are good enough to go play in the NBA – you can count them on the fingers of one hand, probably, in any one year. Nobody goes and watches college basketball, the Final Four, because they think the best basketball players in the world are there; they’re not. Nobody was cheering for Dayton because they thought those are the best basketball players in America. They sure loved them playing as a team. They were students from Dayton, and they were playing great ball.
Keys: You cheer because they are taking down Goliath.
Emmert: Sure they are, but Goliath doesn’t have to be NBA players. We had about 5,000 Division I men’s basketball players this year. About 60 of them will turn pro. We had 700 kids competing in the men’s basketball tournament. Of those 700, 30 will go pro this year. Everybody is cheering for them anyway. I don’t think getting rid of the one-and-done rule would have any impact at all. We’ve even had an experiment: We had about five years where you could go right out of high school, and college basketball was as popular as ever.
Page: With all of the pending litigation going on, do you see congressional intervention into the NCAA or into college athletics at any point in the future?
Emmert: I don’t think there will be a need for that, but you never know. Congress is not the place that this ought to be handled. I think we need to figure out how to manage reform ourselves, but it’s also the case that trying to improve the plight of student-athletes, there’s a lot of things that we need to do to make this work even better for all of you. Doing that through unionization is a train wreck. Doing it by converting students into employees, whether they’re unionized or not, is a train wreck. If we want to continue to have nearly a half a million kids have access, we need to figure out some solutions to this on our own.
We’ve got a great opportunity with Division I right now. With the focus on the changes in Division I governance, we will be voting on a DI governance structure in which the chair of the DI Student-Athlete Advisory Committee will become – if this gets adopted in August – a voting member of the Division I Board of Directors. That person will be sitting on the board, and there will be two other student-athletes nominated by SAAC who will sit on the Council – which is a bit like the management councils in the other divisions. The very first time I met with the Division I SAAC 3½ years ago, your predecessors said, “When are we going to get a seat on the board?” I said, “Well, we’re working on it.” It’s slow, but here we are.
Page: Do you see any potential for a fund being put together for student-athletes who leave college early to go pro, but that doesn’t work or they get injured, and they want to return to school? Do you see any potential for help for those student-athletes?
Emmert: Most Division I schools right now do in fact provide that opportunity. We’ve had almost 13,000 students come back and finish now in Division I on scholarship funds after their eligibility was expended. It used to be that you get your five years, your five years to play four, and that’s it. A few years ago we liberalized that rule to say look, if a school wants to provide this opportunity, you can do it, but it hasn’t been mandated.
The next obvious step is, can the membership create a pool of resources that could be used for it? There’s certainly no reason why they couldn’t do it. That would certainly be an option available to the members. The NCAA’s budget is driven by the Executive Committee that all three of your presidents sit on. If they said, “Look, we want to set aside X million dollars for that purpose,” they could do that.
I personally would like to see scholarship commitments be for degree, not for a period of time. I’d love to have a model where schools came in and said, “We’re offering you a scholarship for a bachelor’s degree. You do all the right things on your end, then we commit to staying with you until you finish your degree. There’s some parameters around it obviously, but I think that would be really terrific and relieve some of that pressure that everybody feels.
Page: What about long-term funding for medical care, for student-athletes who have been injured or suffer mental problems because of their commitment as a student-athlete? Do you think there’s potential for funds being available for them provided by the NCAA?
Emmert: Here is what is available right now: There’s insurance that’s provided either by you or your institution; there’s often some conference insurance; and on top of that, there’s long-term disability insurance that’s available through the NCAA. If you have a debilitating injury that occurs while you’re a student-athlete and you have medical expenses that continue on, there is an insurance program in place for that. We’ve had student-athletes, sadly, be on insurance coverage for decades because they’ve had some really awful injury. That’s in place.
Some people are saying, “I wasn’t injured while I was an athlete,” or, “I was injured but didn’t know it, and now that I’m 28 or 30, all of the sudden my knee doesn’t work.” The big challenges, of course, are figuring out causality. Was it the sports injury that really did that? It’s a big challenge for insurers.
The reality of a student-athlete getting stuck with an unpaid medical bill is very low, but I do know this: The presidents are very interested in exploring that whole issue and finding out what can be done to make sure that student-athletes aren’t stuck with medical bills.