The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Don’t misinterpret Mark Emmert’s failure. The NCAA can be saved.

Mark Emmert speaks at a news conference before this year's men's basketball Final Four. (David J. Phillip/AP)

The job of NCAA president is not nearly as tough as Mark Emmert made it look, with his powdered wig arrogance and dull ducal lethargy. Emmert’s NCAA was a stagnant moated castle at a time of accelerating change, but the worst part of his legacy is the cynical loathing he bred for the institution. Emmert made the organization’s leaders seem like cake-eaters incapable of fixing their own tumbled walls while the mob gathered with torches.

There is a simple antidote. Replace him, promptly, with a fit and credible leader accustomed to solving public policy problems at scale — namely, former Pentagon chief Robert Gates. That Emmert has been nudged out suggests some common sense finally penetrated the circle of pipe-tampers on the NCAA Board of Governors. Or maybe they simply noticed that Gates, the former Secretary of Defense and an independent board member, managed to streamline the NCAA constitution, whacking its pages more than in half, and win overwhelming approval for the overhaul by a vote of 801-195 in the space of just a few months. All while Emmert, more than a decade into his tenure, was holding a pale wrist to his forehead and moaning about how hard change is.

Mark Emmert will step down as NCAA president by June 2023

It’s difficult to summarize the combination of doziness and density with which Emmert led the NCAA on just about every front. But the main harm he did was to make the NCAA seem unfixable and its presidency undesirable. It’s not. It just has been led by an unqualified blockhead for so long that we came to think of it that way.

There wasn’t a single important NCAA issue that Emmert didn’t take a fatally wrong stance on — that is, when he wasn’t ducking. On his watch, NCAA rules investigations, always inefficient, became morasses of mishandling and irresolution, capped off by his stammering congratulations to the “Kansas City Jawhawks” at the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, provoking Twitter suggestions that perhaps his inept NCAA has had the wrong team under scrutiny since 2019.

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Any leader with a shred of executive capability could see that NCAA schools were in an untenable legal position after a court found in favor of Ed O’Bannon in his 2014 name, image and likeness piracy suit. Instead, Emmert’s NCAA administration squandered hundreds of millions appealing the athlete lawsuits, acting as remorseless financial predators determined to maintain athletes as chattel. He essentially led a hold-them-off-at-the-pass movement while shoveling the last of the gold bricks into his own saddlebags. By the time he was done, Supreme Court justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote, “The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.” Nice work there.

You could call Emmert a con artist, but that would award him too much credit for strategy. In fact, he failed to smell the coffee on his own plantation. It’s estimated that, on his watch, the NCAA may have left billions on the table by signing a ridiculously long contract extension with Turner-CBS through 2032, a purely lazy move that failed to read the commercial rights fees landscape.

But nothing compared to the sheer malpractice of Emmert’s NCAA when it came to women’s sports, especially basketball. Emmert should have been fired as soon it was revealed that he misstated cost-revenue figures in the tens of millions of dollars and insulted the women’s tournament as a money loser. An assessment by attorney Roberta Kaplan showed Emmert had undervalued a prime asset by $100 million.

In short, Emmert’s NCAA managed to be retro, revenue-stupid and repugnant all at the same time. What a hat trick.

Emmert’s personal hallmark was always to shuck blame off on others, usually by insinuating that NCAA members were too fractious to enact meaningful policy or that he was powerless to resist the presidents.

That’s baloney. His predecessor, Myles Brand, is overpraised as a heroic reformer, but he at least had some practical executive ability and forged consensus on the reform measures known as Annual Academic Progress Rate. You can debate the flaws in the APR — it has plenty — but the point is, Brand had good intent and got something done.

The NCAA governors are faced with a choice: They can either find a leader with some real skills or let the organization devolve into a ruined shell. They face numerous major structural problems: a snarled and bloated bureaucracy, the competing agendas of the balkanized Power Five conferences, a failed ethics system and expanding economic rights of athletes that have destabilized old recruiting modes and led to mass transfers and commercial chaos.

But overarching all of these is a broader credibility problem: The message from Congress and the courts is that “we are not trusted to manage this enterprise,” as SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey put it in an interview with Paul Finebaum. Emmert has left deep skepticism in his wake; no one believes the NCAA is sincere about or capable of reform.

The ideal person to lead that change is Gates — no one else comes close to his qualifications or credibility when it comes to implementing effective change at large institutions with sprawling inefficiencies. The NCAA should beg him to take the post, and the athletic world would be lucky to get him, even if he served for a couple of bridge years.

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At age 78, Gates would be acting out of conviction rather than ambition because he doesn’t need the job. But he’s got a taste for problem-solving, which earned respect from both sides of a polarized Washington over service in eight administrations.

Years ago, when Gates was first interviewed to become president at Texas A&M, he told the search committee, “I don’t do maintenance.” Other interesting names are being bandied around as potential successors, including that of Sankey, who is co-chair with Ohio University Athletic Director Julie Cromer of the NCAA Division I’s “transformation” committee. But at this juncture, the NCAA needs the proven strong hand and independent mind of a Gates, not another tethered insider. As Gates wrote in his memoir, “Reform is not a luxury but a necessity.”

Emmert was the king of maintenance, an immobile steward of swollen bureaucracy, even as he presided over its steady deterioration. But the biggest injustice he perpetrated was to make his job seem both undoable and disreputable. The first task of a new leader will be to make the NCAA presidency seem worth having again.