NCAA President Mark Emmert decries unionization effort, avoids other key issues in address to reporters


“The notion of using a union-employee model to address the challenges that do exist in intercollegiate athletics is something that strikes most people as a grossly inappropriate solution to the problems,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said. (David J. Phillip/AP)

In his annual state of the NCAA address Sunday, President Mark Emmert decried an attempt by college athletes to unionize but otherwise avoided substantial discussion of the issues that threaten to derail college sports’ amateur status.

Emmert began his news conference (which had been delayed three days) 10 minutes late and cut it off five minutes early, trimming the scheduled hour-long session to 45 minutes. Moreover, in a departure from past practice, he was joined by three university presidents and Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, each of whom made opening remarks and weighed in on reporters’ questions, further narrowing Emmert’s window to discuss the important matters facing the NCAA.

Last week, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern’s football players are employees of the university and, as such, are entitled to form a union to advocate for better working conditions. In reaching his conclusion, the NLRB official cited the 40 to 50 hours per week the athletes devote to football, the unusual control coaches have over their daily lives, their lack of guaranteed scholarships and the vast scale of the entertainment enterprise their labor supports.

On Sunday, Emmert warned unionization “would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.”

“The notion of using a union-employee model to address the challenges that do exist in intercollegiate athletics is something that strikes most people as a grossly inappropriate solution to the problems,” Emmert said.

But he offered no concrete proposal for tackling the grievances that have led to this point. Among them: The NCAA’s failure to provide long-term health insurance or guarantee four-year scholarships; its refusal to provide stipends that cover the full cost of attendance or give athletes — specifically football and men’s basketball players — a cut of the revenue the NCAA generates from their likeness and popularity; its unwillingness to enforce the 20-hour athletic work week that many coaches routinely flout; and its practice of divvying up its billions in broadcast revenue based on schools’ won-loss records rather than their educational success or failure.

Instead of articulating concrete reforms or setting a timetable for change, Emmert, who according to USA Today collected $1.7 million in compensation in 2011, his first year as NCAA president, noted that the NCAA makes decisions “in a ponderous, democratic process.”

Emmert failed to address the growing perception that the NCAA, under Emmert’s leadership the past three years, has been unwilling to act in the interests of college athletes, tacitly ceding control of the revenue-generating sports of football and men’s basketball to major athletic conferences and television networks to the point that courts, federal agencies and, potentially, the U.S. Congress now stand poised to intervene.

Here’s what Emmert had to say on other topics:

●The phenomenon of “one-and-done” players in college basketball: “As everyone here knows, this is enshrined in the labor agreement between the NBA and NBA players and not a rule that we have control over. I’ve been pretty vocal in opposition to that notion.”

●The prospects of future NCAA Final Fours being held at venues smaller than domed stadiums such as the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, where a college-record 79,444 watched Saturday’s national semifinals: “We all love the confines of a nice, tight arena. It’s a great venue for basketball. . . . But the reality is you can get 80,000 people in to watch a game [in a football stadium], and that’s pretty exciting.”

●Long-term medical coverage for college athletes: “It’s incumbent upon the [NCAA] membership to have a good debate about what that would look like and how we can make it be successful and provide legitimate, good, high-quality coverage going forward. The devil’s in the detail in all of that, but I think we need to have that debate.”

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