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2016 NCAA State of the Association

Thursday, January 14, 2016


We are gathered here today in recognition of this uniquely American phenomenon of college sport. We come together because we love college sports, because our students, our fans, our alumni love college sports. Indeed, it's become pretty much an integral part of what it means to have a collegiate experience in the United States. It's hard to think about colleges in America and universities in America without also thinking about intercollegiate athletics.

But, ultimately, what this is all about and what we all recognize and need to stay focused on is about providing a pathway to opportunity for now nearly a half a million young men and women.

That's why we're here, to have the 1100 member schools of the NCAA be united around that one goal, providing opportunities for our student‑athletes. But I want us also, throughout this Convention, to be really clear. We're facing a very challenging landscape today. There are important parts of the intercollegiate model that need to be fixed. The public has real concerns, you have real concerns -- I've heard it from all of you. I have real concerns. Those concerns arise when our actions don't line up with our values. When athletics conflicts with academics, when student‑athletes don't get a fair shake. Lots of people ask me about it, I suspect lots of people ask you about it wherever you go outside of the athletic world. I've even had the President of the United States ask me about it.

Don't get me wrong, like all of you here I recognize profoundly that there's a lot that's right going on in college sports. For most of our athletes they're having amazing experiences that are life‑changing for them and we're really proud of that. We as an Association have made important strides to address what's wrong and what's not working. We have accomplished a great deal. You've been very, very active the past decade or so.

In all three divisions you should be proud of what you've done. The last five years, there is no question that life for our student‑athletes has gotten better. We've deregulated food rules and nutrition rules in Division I and Division II. We've changed the rules that allow full cost of attendance and multi‑year scholarships in Division I. We changed from a moment where student‑athletes had little voice and little votes to where they have stronger voices and votes in the affairs of the Association and that's a dramatic change.

We even improved the decision‑making process, particularly in Division I so those of you that are closest to our students, the athletic directors, the senior reps, the women administrators, that you are now in more direct conversation around our issues and that's been incredibly successful.

You've gotten a lot done, and you should be pleased with that. But here is the most important part of our message today ‑‑ we can't rest on those laurels.

There are actions we still need to take and we need to take them now, because of the concerns we have, the public has. That's, I think, why we need to stay focused on the three simple priorities that undergird college athletics.

First and foremost as Kirk just said, as Dr. Rice said, as we've all said to each other, we have to stay focused on academics. Second, we've got to focus on fairness and treating our student‑athletes fairly. And thirdly, we have to stay focused on their health and well‑being. Let's take a quick look at those three areas.

First, academics. Everything we do must be in support of student‑athletes and their pursuit of a college education. If we're doing things that don't support the fundamental educational needs of our student‑athletes, then we're failing. We're not doing our jobs if we aren't creating as many opportunities as possible for each of those nearly half a million student‑athletes.

Now, we've already made great changes, of course, in recent years, improving the academic eligibility requirements in Division I and Division II. We've added academic performance to the post‑season -- eligibility for post‑season play. We've provided financial assistance for schools with limited resources that are struggling on academic issues and a variety of other things that you all have been involved with, and they've paid off.

We have watched across all three divisions graduation rates of our student‑athletes pretty much across the board rise over the past decade and that's true whether they're men or they're women, it's true whether they're majority or minority students.

In fact, if you look at Division I African American student‑athletes for African American males they're now graduating at 12 percentage points higher than their counterparts on their same campus. African American women are graduating at their 13 percent higher than their counterparts on campus. That's really exciting.

But I think we have to be perfectly honest that there is still real work to do here. When it comes to rebalancing academics and athletics, time demands on our student‑athletes immediately pop to the top of the list.

Now, we've already seen some great work in this area in the past, of course. Division II has been dealing with this for some time and they've made some very significant strides of trying to get the balance right. And the DI students have come to this Convention with research and readiness to lead and they're providing really, really important input and feedback on time demands on our students.

We've also seen many conferences putting forward proposals on what can be done to help address these issues.

So this is the time, now, to match our actions with our values. There are some challenges in all of that for sure and because there are differences of opinions between coaches and athletes and administrators and from sport to sport, it's a hard subject.

But student‑athletes entrust us with their time, with their talents, with their academic skills, and it's only fair that we be good stewards in return.

The second issue that I want us to stay focused on is this whole notion of fairness. We need to ensure the fairness of the way we treat all of our student‑athletes.

Let me tell you what I mean by that. First and foremost, we need to make sure that we deliver on our commitments that we make to our student‑athletes.

We need to make sure that when we bring someone to campus, when we recruit them, go out, encourage them to come to us and we have persuaded them of all the opportunities that are in front of them, that they have a fair shot of doing everything that we've proposed to them and doing it successfully.

Now, we all know that more than 98% of our student‑athletes won't be professional athletes. So we've got to be committed to providing all of our students with a meaningful education that sets them up for success in life. That's at the core of this, that's only fair.

We also know that less than two percent, basic arithmetic, of our student‑athletes will make a living in professional sports. Less than two percent.

What keeps me up at night, and I suspect a lot of you as well, is that we all know there is a huge number of our student‑athletes who have grossly unrealistic expectations of playing professional sports. Our surveys of our students show that in Division I men's basketball, 75% of our men's basketball players believe they're going to be a professional basketball player. 50% of Division II basketball players believe that and 24% of Division III men's basketball players believe they're going to make a living as a professional basketball player.

There are plenty of people around them telling them that, too, and maybe even think it, too. I think we all know how this happens. Let's say you're an eight‑year‑old boy or girl, you're told by your coaches and family and friends you're the best in the sport, you're the best they've ever seen, you can make it in the League, you're a pro, they hear the same thing in high school, in club sports, they hear it when they're being recruited by their college coaches that come in to recruit them in their households and then reality sets in.

If a student‑athlete truly has the ability to go to the League, to go pro, then I think we should recognize that we've got an opportunity to help them, and we should, that's what we are supposed to do.

At this Convention we've already seen some really terrific changes in the Division I Council when they passed a rule that changes the basketball rules to allow a student‑athlete to gain a more objective sense and information about whether or not they're going to go pro in basketball with the NBA, work with the NBA, develop an objective reality of what their prospects of success are. But if that doesn't work they don't have to give up their college eligibility. They can come back and continue to be a collegiate athlete and get the education that's going to change their lives.

For those students who think they will go pro but aren't and don't and learn that hard lesson later, I think we still need to help them prepare for life after sports. When you think about the numbers, 75% of Division I men's basketball players, for example, and only 2% are going pro when 75% believe they are, there is a lot who are going to have that dream taken way and they are going to have to deal with reality. We've got to work with those students to make sure that our commitment to help them get ready for life maintains itself. We've had a number of schools do this explicitly, they made commitments to life‑long scholarships -- University of South Carolina Gamecock Promise, Indiana Student Athlete Bill of Rights, we have had whole conferences making commitments like that and I think that's very, very exciting. That's something we need to be focused on.

Another part of this whole "fairness" notion is that students have a to role play as they're doing right now, and this is a wonderful change at this Convention. Students have to play a very meaningful role in the work of this Association.

At this Convention we seem to have much more student engagement than ever before at all three levels. Like many of you I spend a good bit of my time in these meetings talking with our student leaders and getting a chance to work with them and I think that's fabulous and when we see them coming ready to do serious work with you as our colleagues in solving the problems of college sports that's fabulous and I'm really, really excited about where we're headed in that regard.

You know, we've also seen student voices and engagement in other areas, too. We have seen a level of student activism on campus that we haven't seen in decades, maybe since some of us were in college. Students are also saying, look, we're part of the student body and we want to have a voice in social justice issues and topics that are of concern to us and we want to be part of that conversation and I applaud that. And I know sometimes it can cause some stress and some strain but it's the exact thing that we want our student‑athletes to do as members of our campus community.

But I think we also have to point out that fairness is more than just having a voice. It's also about having mentors and role models and people that can inspire you to pursue your dreams, wherever they may take you, especially from a student's perspective.

Let me ask you this: If you're a minority student‑athlete or a woman athlete competing today, do you feel like you have a fair shot at becoming a coach, becoming an athletic director, a commissioner, an administrative leader in college sports or not? The data in this regard are pretty disconcerting to me and I suspect to all of you.

We have not been making much headway at all around bringing women and minorities into huge portions of collegiate sport. When you look at the data about athletic directors, about coaches in many sports, in fact, the data are heading in the wrong direction. We've got a real problem and challenge with the dearth of minority and women coaches and administrators. Solving that is a very difficult problem. It's not one of those things that we're going to do overnight. But I know one thing for sure: We won't make headway unless we focus on it and work on it. We've got to get that fixed. As our student body becomes more diverse we have to make sure that they have a fair shot at moving forward in their sports and in their athletic fields if they choose to.

And then the third focus as I mentioned -- we talk all the time about and Kirk just brought up as well -- is we've got to also keep our eye on the health and well‑being of our student‑athletes. That's in large part why the Association was founded 110 years ago. Now, we've taken, I think, justifiable pride -- we, the Association, and all the membership -- of being at the forefront of health and safety forever, since we were founded. And that’s a really good thing. But that doesn’t mean we can stop. In fact, just the opposite -- it means that our commitment has to be even greater. We’ve got to stay at the forefront of those issues. These are things that cut across all three divisions and all sports. They are the issues that, I think, for many of us are the most pressing.

And at the top of that list of health and wellness issues, first of all, is of course concussions and mental health issues -- things that, again, cut way across divisions and sports, but also across all of our campuses. We have developed best practices and protocols in both mental health and in concussions and we’re really, really pleased about that. And we continue to learn a lot more about what works and what doesn’t work and what the real medical history of these things are and how we can be more useful. Kirk mentioned our joint study with the Department of Defense, the largest study that's ever been conducted and is continuing to be conducted around understanding concussions. And that's going to pay off enormously. And at the same time some of our member campuses have been at the cutting edge of those things too. University of North Carolina, for example has the most advanced helmet censoring data seen in the world. And those data are being used as a way to teach individuals, students, coaches, about how to mitigate impacts and exposure to potential concussions. That's exactly the kind of thing that we need to do and replicate again, again and again, so we can stay in front of the curve of helping the well‑being of our student‑athletes.

As we begin to see evidence from all of these studies and everything else we do we've got to be ready to move forward. Doing the study isn't enough, we've got to be ready to take the information we learn and modify our practices and best policies and put them in place.

There are a lot of challenges around that because some of these things have financial implications and for a lot of institutions that's an issue. But this is something we've got to pay attention to. Nobody wants that more than this crowd. I understand that, but we've got to be serious about it. We've got to hold each other accountable, we've got to stay on top of this issue and say, look, we're not going to put our student‑athletes’ well‑being and health at risk. We've got to take action on these things and we need to do it right away.

And finally, in the area of health and wellness we need to make sure that we have our arms fully around the whole question of insurance and medical expenses.

We started off a handful of years ago, I think, with a really nice step when we moved legislation back in 2013 to allow schools to make direct payment for medical expenses for student‑athletes. So that's not an impermissible benefit, but something that makes sense.

But the truth is we also don't have a very good feel for what the insurance model looks like across the Association. The national office working with the board started an initial step of gathering information by conducting some case studies looking at a handful of universities and looking deeply at what kind of medical insurance is provided by the families, by the institution, by the national Association, what's that chain look like, what are the gaps, if there are any, what are the costs for our students.

And we know that from that study, that we're in pretty good shape but we need a lot more than that, we need to understand this more thoroughly. So we're using that case study to begin an Association‑wide survey to gather data so we understand what we can and need to do, if anything. And we've got to find out are there gaps and if there are how do we fix it, how do we make health insurance work for our student‑athletes, so they don't incur costs because they've participated on a sports team.

This is work that we've got to do to remain at the forefront of student health and well‑being. There's a number of things in that category but those are front and center for us. So those three areas, academics, fairness, and health and well‑being of our student‑athletes, have got to be our focus, not just at this Convention but, you know, throughout all of our work.

We've accomplished a lot but there's still a lot to do. And frankly we've got to be honest about one more thing. In the past we as a governing body because of the complexity of the way we go about our business, we've gotten in our own way more than once. And we need to not repeat those mistakes. It's far too easy in our governance systems to backslide into dealing with minutia and trying to manage really tiny details and in the process lose track of the big picture about our student‑athletes, about what's good for them, what serves their purpose, what provides opportunities. That's our job.

College sports, everybody here understands, are wonderfully special things. I thought Dr. Rice said it beautifully today. She said many things beautifully today but I especially liked it when she said we are the guardians of the trust that is intercollegiate athletics. We are the guardians of the trust that is intercollegiate athletics. I thought that was perfect. Because ultimately our role is to ensure that college athletics is all about this pathway to opportunity, all about making sure that our students get those chances to succeed in everything that they do. Our focus has got to be on the college athletes' experience and what's working for them.

Being a student‑athlete today is, I think, vastly better than it was 20 years ago. I believe it's better than it was five, six years ago, but there are persistent challenges that we need to address and we need to address them with some sense of urgency. Everyone wants to see us do that. They're complex and they're difficult problems but that's true of most things that are worth doing and we need to not shirk our responsibility because of that.

Just as the world is changing around us, we've got to change the landscape of college sports and stay attuned to the needs of our students today and tomorrow, not yesterday.

And I want to thank all of you for your willingness to accept responsibility to be the guardians of this wonderful thing known as intercollegiate athletics. Thank you very much for being here.