Outgoing NCAA President Mark Emmert had some advice for his replacement in his first public appearance since announcing in April he was stepping down from position he has held for the last 12 years.
“The job requires a lot of patience. And it requires a lot of tolerance for ambiguity and it’s got a lot of moving parts because of the scale of the enterprise,” Emmert said Wednesday during an appearance at the Sports Business Journal’s Intercollegiate Athletics Forum. “But that just means you got to stay as focused as you can on what really counts. And that’s doing the right thing by the athletes.”
Emmert, 69, has kept a low-profile during this lame-duck period as the NCAA’s leader. His tenure is set to end officially June 30, but the search for his successor is expected to be completed by the NCAA convention the second week of January.
He will leave the association, which has more than 1,100 member schools that serve half a million college athletes, as it is in the process of a sweeping reorganization and attempt to decentralize the regulation of college athletics.
Major college sports is making an awkward transition into a new era where athletes can be paid endorsers, while enforcement of rules regarding name, image and likeness has been flimsy. The games have never been more valuable media content, but the NCAA is still fighting to keep from paying the athletes like employees.
Emmert has led the NCAA through a tumultuous time when it has been battered by antitrust lawsuits and threatened by politicians. Last year’s unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court left the NCAA exposed to further legal attacks and pivoting to deregulation.
“Mark walked … in at one of—if not the most challenging time for intercollegiate athletics and has continued to lead well,” Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey said. “I think you have to take a step back and look at how the NCAA is continuing to function as a priority and how it’s continuing to adapt, and you can make plenty of observations: ‘Well, it hasn’t done this. It hasn’t done that.’ That true in any endeavor.”
Despite all the uncertainty, Emmert said leading the NCAA is still a desirable opportunity.
“I guess I’ll confess to a little bit of envy to whoever winds up stepping in next because they get to continue to shape that amazing American institution,” he said.
Emmert called college sports a “public trust” and he conceded the job was even bigger than he thought it would be when took over in 2010. Emmert had previously served as the president at the University of Washington and LSU.
Even with that experience in higher education, Emmert admitted the governance of college sports—a representative democracy with limited power for the person sitting at the top—was complicated.
Chris Howard, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Arizona State, called Emmert “a good leader” who had a challenging role.
“It’s a different type of leadership that’s much different than that stern hand that we think we associate with leadership,” said Howard, a former college football player at Air Force who previously was president at Robert Morris University.
Emmert has faced plenty of criticism as he became the face of an increasing unpopular entity.
“I think it’s in a lot of ways inappropriate to have an administrator be the face of the NCAA,” Emmert said. “The athletes are the face of the NCAA.”
Emmert, who made $2.9 million in 2021, said the only time the criticism bothered him was when he was accused of not caring about the athletes and prioritizing generating revenue.
“That’s painful. It’s offensive. It means somebody’s not spent two minutes trying to figure out, you know, who this guy is and what he’s done all his life,” he said.
Emmert said it was fair to say the NCAA should have acted sooner on name, image and likeness, but the association’s ability to create guidelines was overrun by state laws and other challenges.
“And the legal environment right now really constrains any national entity from saying, ‘Yeah, here’s how we’re going to manage this and control it,’” he said.
He called—again—for Congress to create federal NIL legislation.
Emmert said he didn’t regret going outside the the NCAA’s normal enforcement process to punish Penn State’s football program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case in 2014.
The NCAA was sued for the penalties and sanctions against Penn State and eventually many of them were rolled back.
“In retrospect, it would have been useful to do that a little more slowly, probably. And maybe some of the anxiety would have died down but I don’t second guess that one as much as people think,” Emmert said.
Emmert said he has played no role in choosing the next NCAA president beyond helping the Board of Governors create a job description.
“I’ve just loved 12 years of working in this space. I think college sports is one of the most consequential things that goes on in the country,” Emmert said. “And I hope people always recognize that we’re talking about changing a half a million people’s lives on an annual basis. There’s very few enterprises that do that.”