By Gary Brown
WASHINGTON, D.C. – NCAA President Mark Emmert told members of the Knight Commission here on Monday that the landscape of intercollegiate athletics will change dramatically in the coming year. And he wasn’t talking entirely about conference realignment, either.
Emmert mapped out reform measures under way – several of which could be acted on this week – that align with the commission’s longstanding emphasis on student-athlete well-being and academic primacy in athletics. Knight Commission members reacted favorably to the testimony.
“We are poised to consider a package of changes that will have a remarkably positive impact on making sure that student-athletes are much better prepared coming in and that they and their coaches and institutions are being held more accountable than ever before for academic success,” Emmert said.
Knight Commission members appeared most interested in measures to ensure student-athlete academic success and to establish minimum academic standards for participation in NCAA championships and bowl games. Those measures were part of Emmert’s summary of what is being contemplated by four presidentially led working groups that were appointed after an NCAA presidential retreat in August.
Some of those concepts could become reality as early as Thursday when the NCAA Division I Board of Directors is expected to begin acting on recommendations that ramp up eligibility standards for student-athletes and for the teams on which they participate.
The Board already adopted a stronger penalty structure surrounding the Academic Progress Rate after the presidential retreat when members approved a minimum 930 four-year Academic Progress Rate score to be eligible for postseason play (the details will be considered at this week’s meeting).
“Imagine a coach whose team is competing extremely well who has to walk into his or her president’s or his or her AD’s office or face his or her team and say, ‘I know you’re playing well but we’re not eligible this year because you didn’t study enough,’ ” Emmert said. “This will affect how coaches recruit and the emphasis they place on the academic success of their student-athletes and on the entire mission of the athletics department. It will shape behavior in constructive ways.”
Emmert also said he will urge the Board to consider increased eligibility standards for incoming freshmen and transfer students, including a bump in high school core-course grade-point average requirements for initial eligibility (currently at 2.0) and an increase in the number of the 16 required core courses that must be completed by a particular time.
“We see far too many ‘summer miracles,’ ” Emmert said, referring to students who receive lots of credits and good grades late in their high school careers after having been academically deficient through their junior years.
“Even if all of that is somehow on the up-and-up, it’s nonetheless not an academically appropriate way to go through one’s high school core curriculum,” Emmert said.
The increase in eligibility standards also might come with what Emmert called an “academic redshirt model” that would require incoming student-athletes who fall short of whatever increased standards are eventually approved to go through an academic catch-up year. Emmert said such student-athletes would still enjoy the benefits of having an athletics scholarship but would not participate in competition until they meet the increased requirements.
“That maintains access to institutions and scholarship support but restricts competition until they’ve met that next level of eligibility,” he said, noting that the proposal probably wouldn’t reach the Board review stage until the group’s January meeting.
Other concepts Emmert reviewed included increased academic eligibility requirements for 2-4 transfers, a potential tiered structure for levying penalties for rules violators and a streamlined Division I Manual that focuses more on core values than dizzying details.
Emmert said the rules that have been adopted over time – many of which were put in place for good reasons – have actually contributed to, rather than curbed, bad behavior.
“At the presidential retreat, we all agreed that we were disgusted with much of the behavior we had seen the previous year. But a lot of the problems are self-inflicted by our own rules structure,” Emmert said. “In many cases our rules focus on defining behaviors in painful, brutal – even laughable – detail and may not focus on the big integrity questions we care about.”
But Emmert acknowledged that paring down the rules will take “courage, creativity and a little bit of time.”
“We want to focus on the outcomes and define the desired behaviors rather than regulate the size of envelopes allowed for recruiting materials,” he said.
In the Q&A that followed Emmert’s presentation, Knight Commission members to a person prefaced their queries with praise for Emmert leading the NCAA reform charge in a manner that he himself described as being conducted “with some dispatch.”
Emmert said, “The NCAA is a very deliberate and occasionally ponderous decision-making body. But all of the proposals I’ve mentioned − and some that I haven’t − will not go through the normal legislative process. They’ll go right from the working groups straight to the Division I Board and will be voted on right then.
“If I’m back here (reporting to you) next year, every one of these proposals I have described will have been acted on.”
Knight Commission members also focused on the “dysfunction in governance” that is created by the NCAA having no jurisdiction over postseason football in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. Commission members in fact indicated a desire to explore recommendations for more common oversight of a sport that has such economic ramifications on the entirety of intercollegiate athletics.
Knight Commission co-chair Gerald Turner said that it was appropriate for an independent group like the Knight Commission to take on such a review. Turner said the commission would study the idea in the coming year.
Asked by UCLA and Florida President Emeritus Charles Young whether there was a way the NCAA could control football, Emmert said, “My stock answer has always been that we serve the members of the NCAA, and if the members of the NCAA want to go there (an FBS championship model), then we know how to run championships and we’d be more than happy to do it if that’s what they want. And that’s still my position.”
The evergreen topic of conference realignment also emerged during the Q&A with Emmert, who responded by saying universities and colleges have to make those decisions on their own.
“But what I found troubling about this latest cycle was the lack of thoughtfulness in some cases and the ‘surprise’ nature of some of it – and the cost that it was bringing in collegiality,” Emmert said. “Every university president knows that a successful conference is one in which you can sit around the table and trust each other and horse-trade but in the end share resources among the haves and have-nots. That collegiality winds up being the fabric of how intercollegiate sport works. My hope is that when this cycle pauses that we could collectively figure out how to inject some greater rationality and calmness into the process.”
Emmert even suggested a 30-day exploratory period between a school or conference announcing a possible move and the time at which a decision is reached.
“There was a moment last summer when it felt like Europe in June 1914. Everyone was waiting to see what the other guy was going to do. We can’t have any trust constraints,” Emmert said.
The Knight Commission reacted to a proposal likely to be delivered to the Division I Board of Directors on Thursday that would allow conferences to increase the value of an athletics grant-in-aid by $2,000 to more closely approach the full cost of attendance (as long as that wouldn’t exceed the full cost of attendance at any one school in that particular conference). The Knight Commission has been on record as supporting an increase based on need, but some members during Monday’s meeting worried that it could further separate conferences with more resources.
NCAA President Emmert also noted during his remarks that the NCAA will release the latest Graduation Success Rates for Division I on Tuesday. “And I dare say everyone in this room – even the most skeptical among us all – will be pleased and proud of the results. They show significant and even, in some cases, dramatic improvements.”