The NCAA's new sheriff
For the NCAA, there’s a new sheriff in town. That’s if you believe that the head of the NCAA has authority anywhere near that of law enforcement, which it certainly doesn’t in its current state. Regardless, after 12 years of Mark Emmert at the helm, outgoing Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker will become the organizations new president, getting maybe two month’s vacation before jumping from one politically charged position to one even more so. Baker, a popular Republican governor of a blue state, has never worked in sports before and has no real experience in higher ed, other than all the state universities in his current purview. That’s a stark contrast to Emmert and his predecessor, who were both former college presidents. Which means that Baker perhaps can come into this role without the predetermined bias – or cynicism – of general university governance.
It also means that Baker might have a steep learning curve, beyond what he knew as a former Harvard basketball player back before long shots counted for three points. Baker will be walking into perhaps the most volatile moment in college sports history, which is saying a whole lot for an organization that has divided more times than an average Kardashian wedding. Most notably, Baker will need to satisfy a membership of over 1000 schools that have wildly divergent goals and interests. And resources. Meaning, he’ll have to figure out exactly how to keep both Ohio State and state neighbor Kenyon College happy. He’ll also have to come up with a plan for the increased professionalization of big-time college sports, manifest currently in a volatile name, image, and likeness market, where athletes get paid for their persona but not for playing. He’ll need to somehow stabilize a musical chairs of conference realignment, where UCLA and USC split from the west coast PAC-12 to join a conference with teams in Maryland and New Jersey. And he’ll need to figure out how athletics programs will survive in the upcoming era of enrollment decline.
These are just a few of the challenges ahead for the next president of the NCAA, someone who has never worked a day in college athletics, despite his obviously impressive leadership profile. And that’s not even considering the larger question of college football, a sport that largely falls outside of the economic jurisdiction of the NCAA headquarters yet has become the driver of nearly every decision around big time college sports – and in some cases for universities in general, places like Alabama and Clemson who’s out of state enrollment profiles have risen with national championship appearances. College football, and perhaps all revenue sports, have long been the tail that wags the dog. Whether Charlie Baker is the Cesar Milan of college sports remains to be seen.
Not surprisingly, Mark Emmert has gotten more than his share of criticism over the years, much of it deserved. A lot of this stems from his relative hard line on granting players even moderate revenue opportunities. That, and his aggressive approach to crime and punishment, where athletes were often punished for things like getting a free lunch from a coach while larger infractions – say, cheating scandals, or the full-on debauchery of college recruiting – went unnoticed. And because college coaches often earned more than their professional counterparts at state universities supported by tax dollars and student tuition. Somehow, Charlie Baker, who did manage to keep a liberal state happy despite his more conservative orientation, is supposed to fix this, even though he has relatively little power in a job largely dictated by its most powerful constituents – meaning Power 5 universities.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that it’s hard to say whether Charlie Baker was a good hire or not, because the fate of the NCAA extends far beyond the influence of anyone in that job. The future of college sports lies now in the hands of a select group of college presidents – and perhaps the scores of high-level athletes who hold an increasingly significant amount of power. The best that Charlie Baker can hope to do is hope for the best. Which is perhaps why hiring a politician is actually the best person for this job – someone who has way less power than we realize and is always at the whim of his constituents.
The NCAA has a new sheriff, and we wish him well. Because whether he likes it or not, the shootouts have likely just begun.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.