By extending Emmert’s deal, NCAA shows distance from college sports’ day-to-day
By Alan Blinder
Just over a month ago, when the NCAA was embroiled in another crisis of its own making, 21 board members joined a hastily called videoconference with Mark Emmert, the persistently embattled president of the governing body of college sports.
During the 69-minute session, they heard about disparities between their men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and had, meeting minutes show, “a discussion regarding the timeliness and substance of the response of President Emmert and his staff” to a debacle that had embarrassed the NCAA amid its signature yearly showcase.
Then, on Tuesday night and with a review into deep-rooted gender equity issues still in its opening weeks, the association’s Board of Governors stunned the rest of the college sports world with the announcement that it had extended Emmert’s contract to the end of 2025. It was a multimillion-dollar commitment, if Emmert’s past compensation remains a guide, to the man who is among the greatest symbols of the gap between the day-to-day reality of college athletics and the management of them.
The choice was instructive, suggesting that for all of the turmoil that has enveloped the NCAA on Emmert’s watch, which began in 2010, the board has little or no interest in policy or personnel exit ramps, or a sense that it might soon need them. It was also an assertion of power: a reminder that, despite the influence of the conference commissioners, coaches and athletic directors who have growled and griped about Emmert for years, the most substantive authority in the NCAA rests with part-time board members largely drawn from the ranks of university presidents.
In a summary of Tuesday’s board meeting, the NCAA, which declined to make a board member available for an interview, disclosed Emmert’s extension with just 16 words beneath the heading “other business.” The association took more than double the space to talk about a plan for fewer in-person board meetings — sessions where, presumably, members will maintain the plodding pace that the NCAA defends as a defining and necessary feature of a group with about 1,100 member schools.
Tuesday’s unanimous vote lengthened Emmert’s deal by two years. It also deepened the board’s embrace of a president whose era has included a blizzard of controversies, not all of them self-inflicted, that range from the NCAA’s handling of the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State to a splashy television rights deal that still might have undervalued the tournaments that draw millions of viewers.
“I don’t hire myself,” Emmert, whose last publicly disclosed pay package was worth about $2.7 million a year, said this month. “The board does that. I know there’s been plenty of things that have been done poorly or misses that we’ve had over the years. I’m certainly happy to take my share of responsibility for that. I don’t pretend like I’m infallible, that we’ve done everything perfectly, or that I’ve done everything perfectly. I’ve made plenty of mistakes and have learned from them.”
No NCAA leader will ever be fully immune from criticism; being a target of complaints, warranted or not, is essentially a birthright of the gig. But the board’s surprise move — executives at conferences and schools said that they had no idea that an extension was even being considered, much less made final — reflects a particular brand of stubbornness as the NCAA faces legacy-shaping, industry-defining reckonings on everything from the financial havoc of the coronavirus pandemic to the scope of the association’s power.
Emmert now figures to see the NCAA through much of it — and maybe all of it. He has a supportive board that has been publicly unbothered by his performance, even if he must contend with a disgruntled cadre of athletics administrators on campuses and in conference offices.
“Mind-boggling,” said a commissioner of a Division I conference who said “presidents seem hopelessly out of touch” and spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid rupturing the conference’s relationship with the NCAA.
The board, which includes eminences of American politics, sports and business in addition to the university leaders, probably has plenty of explanations for striking a new deal with Emmert.
Members may have been looking to give a dose of stability to the NCAA, which has seen an array of senior officials plan their departures for one reason or another. (Just last week, the White House announced that President Joe Biden had chosen Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief operating officer, as his nominee for deputy secretary of veterans affairs. The secretary of veterans affairs, Denis McDonough, was a member of the NCAA’s board until last year.)
They may believe that a presidential shake-up would signal a surrender on the industry’s myriad fights. Maybe they figure Emmert deserves to be rewarded for keeping the NCAA afloat during the pandemic, even though it lost nearly $56 million in the fiscal year that ended in August 2020.
It could be as simple as the board being chummy with Emmert, who previously led Louisiana State and the University of Washington and said in an interview in January that he had “no interest in moving away from this anytime soon.”
A board, of course, is expected to offer a measure of independent oversight and to try to remain above the daily turmoil and tensions of a sprawling industry. There is danger, though, in a board or its chosen executive being too distant, or even appearing so.
Yet that is what the NCAA walked into this week, sparking a round of shock and fury and once again offering evidence of a disconnect that has long left college sports prone to surprise and infighting.
The outrage was predictable, quite possibly even somewhat preventable. But with the NCAA, it almost always is.