The crowd of business leaders, community activists, college coaches and athletic administrators gave Mark Emmert a standing ovation when the NCAA president approached the dais early Wednesday morning. He was here, at the University of Maryland alumni center, to give the keynote speech over breakfast at a presentation called “The Collegiate Model for the 21st Century.”
The event was billed as coinciding with the NCAA’s new academic standards, which will raise the mandatory GPA for eligibility from 2.0 to 2.3 on a sliding scale, even though the proposal was adopted in 2012 and won’t be implemented until 2016. Emmert cited the 5,500 NCAA Division I men’s basketball players, and how only at most 60 will be drafted into the NBA. “That’s wonderful,” he told the crowd. “Wonderful entertainment. But it’s about providing the 5,500 with an education. If not, then we have failed.”
The logic behind increasing the mandatory GPA, Emmert said, is to prevent incoming athletes from falling behind the curve even before they arrive on campus. But Emmert also said that “demands on student-athletes are gigantic,” and that surveyed athletes have reported “they’re putting in more like between 30 and 40 hours … during the regular season.”
Given this, he was asked during a question-and-answer session with reporters how to reconcile the desire for increased devotion toward academics with the reality that, in the current climate of conference realignment, teams are regularly traveling further and further, sapping more time away from studies.
“It certainly is a serious concern for some of the conference realignment,” Emmert said. “In some cases we have further travel distances. It’s a challenge that all of the conference commissioners are working on as they try to create sub-divisions inside those conferences to get travel down to where you can get student-athletes back in class and let them get a good night’s sleep before they have to go to class the next day. Yeah, it’s a concern, but it’s something that looks like there’s good solutions to it. But we’ll have to let it play out for a little longer before we’ll know for sure.”
Emmert then said the NCAA is “actively” considering the creation of sport-by-sport “dead periods,” which would forbid athletes “from going to the weight room, forbidden from having practice, forbidden from being engaged in any informal practices.” The NCAA already has a 20-hour rule, restricting the number of “countable activity per week,” which includes games, practices, film sessions, conditioning and individual workouts.
“We need something stronger than that, and these lockdown time periods might be the solution,” Emmert said. “So the members are debating that now.”
As for the hot-button issue of the day, Emmert reiterated his opposition to paying college athletes, firmly saying they are “not employees.” He suggested a modest, multi-thousand-dollar stipend to be included in scholarships, but added, “It is not in any way paying players to pay games.”
At Maryland, football coach Randy Edsall has supported the antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, most commonly known as the O’Bannon lawsuit after former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon. Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson has taken a more conservative approach, which he repeated to reporters Wednesday.
“I’ve always said there’s value in the scholarship,” he said. “If you look at many of the student-athletes, if they’ve taken advantage of the academic piece of it, they’ve gone onto do great things in life. I’m one, if it weren’t for being a student-athlete, I don’t know if I’d be here talking to you today. I wasn’t an elite athlete, but I disagree when people say … I do believe we need to look at enhancing the cost of attendance, in particular on a need basis, but you can’t convince me there’s not great value in the scholarship and being a student-athlete. The other thing is, you have an opportunity. If you don’t want to be a student-athlete, you can say no and not go to school.”
But the counterargument would be that college athletes deserve more than a full ride for tuition, benefits and supplies, given how much revenue they generate for the universities. So what is the difference between a college athlete on full scholarship operating under otherwise unpaid amateur status versus, say, as Patrick Hruby noted for Sports On Earth, a biology major on a full scholarship getting paid to work in the lab?
“Like Dr. Emmert said, there’s some things we need to look at, to do differently, to avoid some of the issues you talked about,” Anderson said. “I believe the reorganization and restructuring of the NCAA, we will have more flexibility with student-athletes and they will be able to do certain things. For the most part, most student-athletes choose to come here and put the time and effort into academics and athletics. It’s by choice, what you do and how you do it. That’s how I answer that.”
Several other items of note:
>> Asked about the NCAA transfer waiver process, Emmert said “the definitions need to be much more tightly developed.” At its worst, the process has been asked to, as ESPN’s Dana O’Neil wrote, “play God” by adjudicating why certain medical hardships are worthy of immediate eligibility and others are not.
“That definition needs to be cinched up a lot,” Emmert said. “Then you can make the decisions a lot faster.”
However, during the question-and-answer session, Emmert took a somewhat paternal approach, saying that “young people need to learn how to be persistent. We want students to stick around because that’s good for them academically.”
>> Emmert again expressed a desire to reform the NCAA’s relationship with professional agents, invoking a comparison to make his point. If a student, he said, comes to college to be an accountant, the accounting program will do everything possible to help the student, like helping find internships. Why not do the same for athletes seeking to play beyond college?
“If it’s good enough for the accountant,” he said, “we can figure out a model that works better for the athletes. … We need them to understand what the real market is.”
>> On concussions, Emmert said he recently met with the Department of Defense at the Pentagon and has been working with the NFL to create safer protocol. He proposed methods like imaging – apparently the NCAA is also working with General Electric – to identify concussions on the spot rather than rely on subjective observation, but also stressed the need to “make sure those [observation tests] are fully enforced.”
“Football is a violent game,” he said. “We have to mitigate that risk to the fullest extent possible.”