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Baker to confront long list of challenges as new NCAA head

Outgoing Gov. Charlie Baker delivering a virtual farewell address.
Outgoing Gov. Charlie Baker delivering a virtual farewell address.
Mass Gov. Charlie Baker/WAMC screenshot
Outgoing Gov. Charlie Baker delivering a virtual farewell address.

Although he stepped aside after two terms earlier this month, former Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker isn’t going away. The Republican who played basketball at Harvard is about to take on another high-profile position as the new president of the NCAA. Baker starts the job in March, and it comes at a time of acute changes and challenges in college sports. For some analysis of the move, WAMC’s Ian Pickus spoke with Malcolm Moran, who directs the Sports Capital Journalism Program at IUPUI in Indianapolis, home to NCAA headquarters.

So, before we talk about what awaits Charlie Baker, what is the state of the NCAA right now and college athletics?

Well, I think the best and most fair way to describe it, is that the NCAA is confronting an existential threat, and that is not an overstatement. There are things that are being considered now and that are in practice now, that would have been considered total fantasy when I covered that industry on a regular basis for the New York Times and USA Today years ago. The notion that athletes are now able to generate the kind of revenue they are. Something that was proposed and debated many, many times over decades. The level of revenue that's being produced, but then at the same time, the ongoing discussion, which is continuing at the convention in San Antonio is what is its purpose? Is the future purpose of the NCAA to conduct championships as its primary role and very little else? The notion of compliance and who makes those determinations and evaluations? That's all on the table. The fact that what was once viewed as the bedrock of the academic piece, the use of standardized test scores, to determine freshman eligibility, that's being discussed and there's a possibility that might go away. I mean, that was one of the biggest debates in the early to mid-80s. So, that's why it's not an overstatement at all to say that there is an existential threat out there and that's a big part of what Charlie Baker's role is going to be.

So, as Baker prepares to come in, I think it's fair to say here in the Northeast, the announcement that he would take over the NCAA was a shocker. How is the news being received where you are?

Well, I think closer to home, I think there's a sense of optimism in regard to his consensus building abilities, and the fact that it was clear in the recent report of the recommendations of the transformation committee that the reason that there were no recommendations in areas such as the name, image and likeness model going forward, is because there was a clear need for intervention from Congress. And he is someone who has relationships in place that can lead to some activity there. I mean, I think that's the biggest reason for optimism, and then we'll see how that plays out.

What kind of legacy is the outgoing President Mark Emmert leaving?

I think that's a complicated issue because in an organization that big and many times unwieldy, you could certainly make the case that it would be unfair to pin the blame on one individual for what happens over a period of time. Now, having said that, it was on his watch and I think part of the legacy that will grow over time, as we look back, depending on what the Baker regime is able to achieve, is that there was a considerable period of time when the NCAA had an opportunity to get out in front of issues such as name, image and likeness, and create a structure that would be more controlled than what we're seeing developing now. And for whatever reason or reasons, that did not happen. And as I said, it might be unfair to pin that on one individual in an organization so large, but I think that inactivity will be a significant part of that legacy.

So, you mentioned Charlie Baker obviously liaising with contacts in Washington. What else does this role as president entail?

Creating consensus. I mean, going back to when I covered college athletics on a regular basis, for many years, there was an attempt to create the so-called level playing field. Well, the reality is there was never a level playing field. You're not going to find very many ways that Harvard and major SEC schools have much in common athletically. And even within conferences, when there are wide disparities, in terms of the investment that's being made in college athletics. One example is TCU’s rise to the national championship game in football, that when you look at the investment that TCU has made in facilities in the last 20 years, that institution has spent millions and millions of dollars to reach a point to get to the big stage. And so, there never has been a level playing field and now there's the recognition that revenue is going to drive investment. I think when you look closely at the recommendations of the transformation committee, and we'll see how that all plays out in the weeks and months ahead, there's an incentive to invest more in important areas such as student athlete health and wellbeing, mental health, health coverage after eligibility expires and the incentive for making that kind of investment is more opportunity. What I mean by that is that this recommendation that 25% of the institutions potentially would have access to championship competition. That could lead to an NCAA men's and women's basketball tournament of roughly 90 schools, as opposed to the 68 that we've known in recent years. So, going forward, there's going to be that incentive to invest to have the chance to reap the financial benefits.

Given the changes to transfer rules on name, image and likeness, which you've mentioned, is power shifting to the student athletes more than the institutions and the conferences now?

Slightly. Obviously, students have more options and on the surface, you would certainly think that that's a good and a long overdue thing. But ultimately, the schools have the power. The schools and the coaches, select the athletes, they decide who gets in the door, they decide who plays, they decide how they're promoted. I mean, I think it's fair to say the needle has moved but I don't think that there has been as much of a transfer of power as it might appear on the surface.

I guess I learned many years ago not to be scandalized by the effective end of the Big East, as we knew it, or watching UCLA go to the Big Ten, that kind of thing. What's the power center in college athletics?

The power center is revenue production and media exposure. When you look back to the launch of the Big Ten Network in 2007 there were, I don't know if I would go so far as saying that there was conventional wisdom that it was a questionable enterprise, but there was a lot of doubt. There were a lot of questions about whether this thing would succeed. By launching that network as successfully as it was launched, once upon a time, when you go back before the Supreme Court ruling in 1984 that took the control over football television out of the hands of the NCAA and into the conferences to make their own individual deals, teams like Michigan, and Ohio State would be on national television, a small fraction of the season. Well, now, if you're a Michigan or Ohio State alum or for that matter, an Indiana University, or Penn State alum living in Seattle, you can see your team on a regular basis. That revolutionized things and lead to similar startups in in other conferences and all of that generates even more revenue. When you look at the expansion of the college football playoff, which two seasons from now will have 12 teams rather than the current four. I mean, think of the revenue that's going to come from all those additional games. So, all of that is changing right before our eyes.

Back to Charlie Baker for a second. Do we know if the NCAA interviewed other potential people? How did he end up getting hired?

It was a very closed shop, which, given the visibility of the position and the urgency of the issues that have to be addressed soon, I was really surprised that there was very little that got out about who was being considered, who was on a shortlist, really, throughout the process. Even in the fall, when I started hearing that they were getting closer, there were very, very few names that you would hear. And I think that speaks to the quality of the process that was pulled off. I mean, I've covered in enough searches that were high profile, whether it was high profile coaches or past NCAA President openings and that's a hard thing to do. I mean, to get that oath of confidentiality among committee members, but they really achieved that this time.

He has never worked in athletic administration. Does that pose any potential pitfalls?

I don't think so. I mean, the fact that he was a student athlete, he's a product of the system. As you mentioned earlier, he played for Frank McLaughlin at Harvard. I think because of that experience, if you can run a state, I think you can run the NCAA. I don't think that hurts him at all. If anything, I think that would lead to a period of curiosity and asking questions that a traditional athletic administrator, or college president might not think to ask it. I think it lends itself to that existential examination, and I think it is time for the NCAA and its leadership to ask the kind of basic questions that haven't been asked in the past. What is the role here? What are we doing for students, and what should we be doing for students who are being tested in ways that were once incomprehensible? Not too long ago, a football team had to win one postseason game to be voted national champion by either the Associated Press poll of media people, or the different coaches’ polls. Well, in two years, football teams would presumably play in a conference championship game and then advance, possibly get a first round bye, but even the teams that get a first round bye, would be playing a quarterfinal game, a semifinal game and a championship game.

Right. That could be 15 games in a season.

That's practically an NFL season and you're asking players that are still learning how to play the game, and I'm not talking strategically, I'm talking self-preservation. You're asking players that are still learning how to go about this business to play that many more games than they were being asked to play not too many years ago. So, what is being done for them? And I applaud the transformation committee by raising those issues about health insurance and an ability to remain on scholarship to complete degree requirements. All those things are being addressed in a very existential way and I think the fact that this is a so-called outsider, can be a very healthy thing as the enterprise moves forward.

So, last question. I don't know how long Charlie Baker will stay in this role; I believe he's 66. But if we're looking ahead five years, say, what does a successful term or tenure look like for Baker?

The creation of stability. The creation of managing all these very volatile situations now. The question of are athletes going to be considered employees? Putting up some kind of guardrails on the name, image and likeness structure so that athletes do receive compensation for all these hours that they are working. But the third parties are not dominating the process. That's the kind of stability that that really has to take place for everything going forward. And I think if that can be achieved in the next 5+ years, I think that would be an enormous step forward for the entire organization.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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