Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Better Way to Look at the NCAA Hiring of Mark Emmert?

Readers of my blog might automatically assume I have a vendetta against football, Athletic Directors and the NCAA in general. I do not. I have issues with the "arms race" and the apparent disregard for the value of sports that don't bring in money that inherently comes with it. From the perspective of a mid-major, non-revenue sport alumni, the current trends we see all too often in the modern sports landscape go against everything the NCAA is supposed to be about. More money somehow leading to less opportunities is in juxtaposition of the ideal of creating educational opportunities through athletics. Cutting sports makes no sense when college athletics has so much more money than in the past.

I posted recently about Mark Emmert becoming the new leader of the NCAA. It worries me not only because he is coming from a major school who cut swimming, but also because some quotes from his initial press conference can be taken as a statement about the "arms race." He basically acknowledged that he understands why it is a philosophical concern for the institution but that he doesn't really see a problem with it.

I contacted Ryan Stratton, one of the leaders in the fight to reinstate Washington Swimming, to see what his take is on the former UW President becoming head of the NCAA. I asked if swimmers should be worried. He basically put me in my place by saying that my reaction might not be the most appropriate course to take if we want to make a real change. His wise response is here:

I've always had a lot of respect for him. He certainly didn't insist that UW keep their swimming programs, but he has always been a promoter of college athletics, within the context of a quality higher education.

There have been a few people asking similar questions or insinuating that perhaps he played a bigger role in the UW decision, which I don’t believe to be accurate. I have not had any personal conversations with him, so I really can't provide too much insight. I have no reason to believe that he would not work to maintain and enhance the goals of the NCAA, which is to provide opportunities for student-athletes to compete at the collegiate level. He has been successful at every position he has held and I think he will be successful at the NCAA.

The swimming community (and other non-revenue sports) should target an awareness campaign so that he understands the challenges we face. Putting him on the defensive before he starts can only work against us. Perhaps his work at the NCAA will help him realize that the decision that he supported at UW was a poor one. Swimming should serve as an example of how to be both a student and an athlete, which is currently a struggle for higher-profile sports.

Kudos, Ryan. Thank you for giving us another angle from which to see this. If all of the non-revenue sports could get together and take on what you suggest, maybe someday it could lead to real action at the national level. Thank you for letting me post this.

I can't help but still worry about our new leader, but Ryan is right. A hostile reaction from the beginning might only serve to hurt our cause.


  1. Well, here's my devil's advocate response. Just thinking out loud here.

    Maybe we're misinterpreting the purpose of the NCAA. Was the NCAA started as a competition between different universities to see who could amass the brightest and best citizens? Or is the NCAA around to give young people an opportunity at higher education when they otherwise wouldn't?

    In the modern day, who needs collegiate athletics the most? Which sport's athletes are the least likely to get an education without the scholarships? I'm a big believer that college, and college athletics, being a vehicle for social mobility, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that my alma mater centers around this principle.

    And let's be honest. On average, the athletes in the revenue sports need the NCAA in order to get an education more than swimmers do. Don't they? I don't have the stats, but isn't that an intuitive conclusion?

    Have college athletics become too Utopian? They used to be about winning on the playing field. And over the last few months, I think I've seen more sports arguments centered around academics than ever before in my life. And I know they can't be ignored. But ultimately, what matters more? If the Universities are dropping money on these kids because they are positive representatives of the University, then why need those scholarship be athletic? And if the Universities are spending scholarship money on the athletes because they are good athletes, why should academics be a factor in saving a program? If Western Hawaii State has 9.9 scholarships, and they have one kid who goes a 43 in his 100 free but gets a 3.0 GPA and doesn't do much for his community, but another kid swims a 49 100 free, gets a 4.0 and starts a program to feed the homeless, who is the scholarship money going to? I think we all know the answer.

    Maybe it's us as the swimming community who's sending the wrong message about what really matters. The teams with the biggest followings are the teams that win the most meets. The kids that get the most scholarship money are the fastest swimmers. The NCAA is just giving us what we want, aren't they?

    Annddd end devil's advocate.

    Don't you sometimes wish that we could just go back to a simpler day of college athletics?

  2. My mother in law just retired from her position as Athletics Director at a D2 school. She was an international team coach for USA Track in the early 80's. She built several teams from scratch and was the first coach for every womens' team currently offered at her alma mater. I interviewed her once for a class, and that was the major theme of what she had to say. Why can't it just be simple anymore? Why can't we just let kids play?

    And as far as the purpose of the NCAA in relation to swimming, education and social mobility... I was one of those kids who would never have been able to get a college education without swimming opportunities in the NCAA. Hell, I probably wouldn't have graduated high school without swimming. My sister didn't. It kept me on a path and for that I am grateful. Maybe that is why I get so worked up about all of this. It matters to me in ways that completely transcend competition.

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  4. I think you have every reason to be concerned about Mark Emmert. This “wait and see”, “don't convict until proven guilty”, laissez faire attitude currently in vogue has allowed a steady stream of ethical outrages to be foisted upon the public. Considering the ongoing debacle of Barack Obama, Goldman Sachs, both houses of Congress et al I'm not going to grant a single inch of leeway to anybody in a position of authority until they've show me actual results. Flowery rhetoric just doesn't cut it anymore.

    With due deference to Ryan Stratton Dr. Emmert has made it perfectly clear sports programs have to earn their way just as the academic programs do:

    College sports today are a dominant force in the media. This exaggerates the real role sports play at our universities. At the University of Washington, for example, about 700 of our 40,000 students (or less than 2 percent) participate in intercollegiate sports. We spend about $60 million a year on 23 sports for men and women. This $60 million, while certainly a great deal of money, is only about 2 percent of the university's overall annual budget of $3 billion. All $60 million is self-generated by the athletic department. No state general-fund dollars or student fees go to support the UW's athletic program. (my bold highlighting)

    Impressive revenue, to be sure, but compare that $60 million with the more than $1 billion our faculty won in research grants and contracts last year, for perspective. It is quite remarkable that an activity that is such a modest part of the university garners such a large part of the public's attention
    - Seattle Times Jan.10, 2008

    That’s a pretty unequivocally damning statement for any one who believes in the classical concept that athletics and physical education are part and parcel of the well-rounded “universal” education necessary to form our society’s future leaders. Unfortunately Dr. Emmert believes there is no higher purpose for Universities than becoming a locus of community capital – a pure dollar and cents man to be sure. Make no mistake; under his leadership the NCAA will eventually drop every Olympic sport due to ‘cost’ concerns – the handwriting is on the wall.

    P.S. Given UW’s pre-eminent role as the leading educational institution in Washington state during a period of incredible wealth creation a monkey could have raised half a billion a year in endowments.

  5. ^^^Somebody spends too much time watching Glenn Beck....

  6. So, Viking, what would you say if the NCAA decided to overhaul the scholarship system and allocate them within the athletics department based on need? Just a thought I had. Or maybe give each sport a certain, smaller, number of scholarships, and then give each AD a certain number of "wildcard" scholarships that can go to the neediest athletes? If social mobility is one of the major purposes, who cares what sport you play?

  7. ^^^Somebody spends too much time watching Glenn Beck....

    Judging from Anonymous' snide comment, and his failure to provide anything to support whatever point he or she is trying to make, I'm going to assume it must be Anonymous who watches too much Glenn Beck. Clearly a case of self-projection.