Q&A with NCAA president Mark Emmert

NCAA president Mark Emmert will be in town Wednesday, speaking to a breakfast meeting of the Atlanta Sports Council board of directors and a lunch meeting of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

In advance of his trip, Emmert talked with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about a range of issues, including college athletics’ “deeply troubling” scandals of the past two years, the NCAA’s plan to impose “more severe” penalties “more swiftly” on rule breakers and his “profound” dislike of basketball’s one-and-done trend.

Q: College basketball season opens this week, starting the road to Atlanta. How are plans coming for the 75th NCAA tournament and the Atlanta Final Four?

A: We’re really excited to be in Atlanta. It’s obviously a city that has great facilities and a wonderful tradition of hosting big events. To be there for the 75th, I think, is going to work out extremely well for everyone. We want this (season’s tournament) to be a showcase of this iconic event. … We’re going to be playing also the Divisions II and III championship games in Atlanta during that same weekend, so it’s going to be a very full weekend of great college basketball.

Q: Although the one-and-done rule is the NBA’s, not the NCAA’s, how do you think college basketball is affected by players leaving after one season?

A: The one-and-done phenomenon, I think, is completely in opposition to the values of the collegiate model of athletics. I want to be really clear: I do not in any way begrudge the young men who leave after a single year; they’re doing what the world is telling them is the appropriate thing to do. But I dislike the rule profoundly. It’s a rule that certainly doesn’t serve intercollegiate athletics well.

Q: How would you change the rule?

A: We have other examples that work very well. The NFL rule, of course, is that you play at least three years. The baseball rule — where you can (turn pro) before you start college, but once you start school you stay for at least three years — works very well. Each sport has its own dynamic, and I understand that. I would hope the NBA and the NBA Players Association could move to something that looks more like one of those models. But what we have right now really is eroding people’s views of college athletics.

Q: College athletics has had a series of high-profile scandals in the past couple of years. How troubling has that been and how are you addressing it?

A: Those scandals are deeply troubling to everybody in college athletics. They have been and continue to be the motivating force behind (many of the reforms) we’re doing. We had clear agreement that we needed to do two very big, fundamental things. First, make sure we have standards, policies and processes in place to assure that our student-athletes are … in their roles as students as much as they’re in their roles as athletes. So we initiated a series of reforms around our academic expectations. And then the second big issue was to address the real threats to integrity of intercollegiate athletics. We were tired of seeing behavior that was completely inconsistent with the values of higher education. So we launched a series of reforms there as well: the modification and restructuring of our rule book — that’s still underway — and a set of changes to our enforcement processes.

Q: The NCAA last week approved an expedited process and stiffer penalties for major rules violations. What is the message you’re sending?

A: There is a message to everyone in college sports, whether coaches or athletes or administrators or boosters or people who hang around the game for less than desirable reasons. And that message is: We’re very serious about enforcing our rules and maintaining the integrity of the games. We ramped up the penalty structure. We ramped up our ability to handle cases. … We wanted people to not be sitting there doing the kind of risk-reward calculus that people do when they’re about to break rules. We wanted to say, ‘Look, if you violate our rules, the penalties are going to be more severe and they’re going to come more swiftly.’

Q: You alluded to reducing the rulebook. What is the philosophy driving that?

A: The philosophy is to focus on those issues that are genuine threats to the integrity of the game. That would include academic fraud … and taking money or other valuables from people you shouldn’t … and the gross injection of third parties into sports, including agents for example … and a lack of truthfulness. The other piece is reducing or dramatically modifying those things that are much less relevant.

Q: So a lot of the rules that get scoffed at as trivial will be gone?

A: Exactly. We have some things in there that are just simply arcane.

Q: One major basketball program (Connecticut) is ineligible for the tournament because of low Academic Progress Rate scores. Are such penalties making an impression?

A: Without a doubt. I’ve talked to many coaches, ADs and faculty athletic reps, and they all understand that the association’s seriousness of intent around academics has never been clearer and has never been more impactful. There are changes in behavior going on right now, and that’s exactly what we want.

Q: What are those changes?

A: First of all, we’re beginning a broad-based communications effort to youngsters — seventh, eighth and ninth graders — letting them know that they need to be prepared not just athletically, but also academically. … Similarly, every coach of every sport knows they have to have their students paying close attention to their academics. It is every student-athletes’ dream to play in one of our tournaments, and if they are unable to (do so) because of their academics … that would be an absolute shame.

Q: Under new academic thresholds taking effect in 2016, 35 percent of football players and 43 percent of men’s basketball players who entered college in 2009 wouldn’t have qualified. Do you expect the new standards to raise athletes’ academic preparation in high school that much, or will the door be shut to many athletes?

A: One of the provisions that doesn’t get talked about a lot is one intended to make sure we don’t shut the door. That is, (if you fail to meet the new standards but meet the old ones) you can still go to an institution on an athletic scholarship and can still practice … but you can’t play in games (the first year). People have referred to it as an academic redshirt year. … The second piece is that we know from past experience that when we raise the bar young people respond very nicely. … Setting a (minimum GPA in core courses) of 2.3 instead of 2.0, we have confidence kids will get there. Having low expectations of people has never been a good route to success.

Q: Your thoughts on the planned four-team football playoff?

A: I think it’s a very good step. It’s a move that makes sense. I know universities are enthusiastic about it. I haven’t surveyed players, but I’ve got to believe they’ll like it a lot. Obviously, fans will enjoy it more than the current model. … I hope a model gets established that is a fair and appropriate one and then stays in place for a while. We need (to) stop debating about the format for an extended period of time.

Q: College athletics often seems driven by pursuit of larger TV rights deals. Does that concern you?

A: The clash between commercial and collegiate models of athletics has been an issue for literally 100 years. It was going on when the NCAA was formed, and it continues today. So, yeah, I do worry about striking the right balance. We have to recognize what the values of college athletics are and then behave in a way that amplifies those rather than detracts from them. That doesn’t mean we aren’t interested in having revenue because that’s how you make this all work. The challenge we have is, understandably, the world pays attention to football, usually 25 or 50 teams, and to men’s basketball, 50 teams or so, that they really get fixated on. And they see that as college athletics. … The fact (is) that very few — in fact, somewhere around 20 — universities have anything approaching positive cash flow out of athletics.

– Tim Tucker

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