The Interview: NCAA President Mark Emmert

(Photo by The Associated Press)

Leadership, higher education, college athletics, politics—NCAA President Mark Emmert will discuss it all when he visits LSU on Sept. 29 for a lecture, hosted by the Ogden Honors College, entitled “Leadership in Challenging Times.” Emmert will speak as LSU’s inaugural Brian and Barbara Haymon Distinguished Visiting Professor. Business Report sat down with Emmert recently for a Q&A on sports, education and everything in between—including LSU football.

—Robert Stewart

This is a big homecoming for you. When was the last time you’ve been in Baton Rouge?

Oh I’ve been there a number of times. I’m down there probably once a year one way or another. I’m trying to remember the last time I was there. I guess in Baton Rouge proper, last time was last football season, I was down for a ball game. I’ve come down to Louisiana a number of times. I’m in and out of New Orleans a lot, and I’ve gone duck hunting with some friends, mostly with (Board of Regents Chairman) Richard Lipsey and his folks each year. While I haven’t been on campus proper other than for a football game in a while, I do stay in touch with everybody down there a lot.

How happy are you to be coming to LSU again, at least for a short visit?

Oh I’m thrilled. I think it’s going to be, first of all, a lot of fun. Anytime I’m around students I like it a lot. To be able to get together with LSU students and faculty is really going to be wonderful. I’m very excited about it.

What do you miss about Baton Rouge, and how much has it changed since you’ve been here?

I miss pretty much everything about it. In any place when you’ve moved around a lot, what you remember, of course, are people, and the people of Baton Rouge are just wonderful folks. Every time I bump into them, which is frequent, I just enjoy renewing old acquaintances and talking about what’s going on in this city. And it has been really fun to watch the development of Baton Rouge, in some cases as a result of huge traumas like Katrina and the aftermath that brought so many folks into Baton Rouge and the population bulges that have occurred there. The developments in downtown since I first moved there in ’99 have been pretty remarkable, and that’s really fun to see. The university has had certainly its share of economic travails. That hurts me to see that occur. But it’s still the same wonderful university. I’m very proud of what’s going on there. All told, it has been fun to watch from a distance. Every once in a while I feel guilty I’m not there to help with the heavy lifting.

State funding for higher ed in Louisiana has been slashed year after year, and the colleges have hiked tuition to make up the difference. Is that a sustainable business model?

The story is a well known one. It has played out all across the country, some places worse than others, and sadly in Louisiana it has been particularly difficult. The notion that states can reduce their financial commitment to universities and colleges and shift that burden to families has gone about as far as it possibly can, I think. The economic hardship that’s being put onto students and their families has now really become a fundamental problem not just for the families, but for the economy. When you look at the mountain of student debt that’s out there, it’s impacting job decisions young men and women make. It’s impacting whether they can afford homes. It has reached a crisis point. We can’t continue to see states balancing their budgets on the backs of universities and students with tuition increases. Universities have made many, many difficult decisions and will have to continue to do so, I’m sure. I don’t know what the right outcome is, but I know we’ve got to find some way to rebalance this ratio of investment. Public higher education is an extraordinary asset for a whole state, not just for the students that are there. It’s a public good that the whole nation and each state and each community enjoys the benefit of. We need to treat it as such instead of just a private good that can be sold at the highest price. That’s not what the intention ever was, and certainly that trend needs to be reversed.

The lecture you’re giving at LSU will focus on leadership in challenging times. What qualities should a good leader possess?

Well for me, I look in leaders, first and foremost, about questions of character. What are the core values that leaders have that they’re constantly embodying? Leaders come in every shape, size, personality and attribute. But the one thing that I’ve always seen is that they have very deep, strong, core convictions around integrity, around care and consideration of other people, around the ability to serve the broader good rather than their own interest and ideas. Other than that, you then can start looking at attributes that make leaders effective in different environments. Predominantly, I think especially in this time, it’s the capacity to understand context. There are lots of individual skills that leaders have to have—communication skills and analytical skills, a variety of other things. But if you can’t understand the context of what’s going on at any one organizational setting or cultural setting and be able to understand the needs and wants and hopes and dreams of the people around you, you’re very unlikely to be effective, and today that gets harder and harder because of the nature of social and cultural change. So one of the things that I’ll be talking about is the capacity and the need for leaders to not try and always apply the same solutions to the same old problems because the problems are different today and the context is constantly shifting, and leaders have to be able to grasp all of that and move forward. I think this presidential election has been a great example of our two leading political parties really not understanding where the citizens of America were on issues and concerns of the day. They came out of the chute and at least half the citizens in America said, “You’re not speaking to me. I don’t know who you’re speaking to, but you’re not reaching me.” It has led to a very tumultuous political season. I think it’s a great example of what I’m talking about.

You’ve been NCAA president for the better part of six years now. What has been the most difficult part of holding this position?

It is, first of all, finding effective ways to communicate what the association really is and what its goal and mission is to the world more broadly. The portrait of college sports is painted predominantly by football and men’s basketball at a relatively small number of schools, 50 or 75 schools, when in fact the association is 1,100 schools and 19,000 teams and 475,000 students. The world sees a tiny fraction of that. Maybe 2 or 3% is what the world sees when they watch TV. They understandably draw all their conclusions about what’s going on in the world of college sports from that very small, biased sample. Getting the world to see and understand that this is about much, much more than that has been a great challenge, and we’re making some good headway. But it’s something we’ll have to continually do. I think the other piece is to make sure that those 1,100 colleges—represented by their presidents and athletic directors in this very democratic decision making process that the NCAA embodies—we must keep those folks focused on three very simple ideas. This is about academic success and making sure that students leave their collegiate experience with a meaningful degree. It’s about, secondly, maintaining and supporting the health and well-being of these young men and women, that they leave their college experience healthier both mentally and physically and better able to take on the world when they finish up their college career. And finally it’s about making sure that this is all conducted in a process that’s fair, fair for the schools that compete against each other, and fair for the students, that their relationship between their university and themselves is one that they look at and feel good about, that people are being treated fairly, that they’re getting every opportunity to be successful and they’re not being taken advantage of. So while you’ve got an issue of the day that bubbles up, whether it’s satellite camps or transfer rules or any particular relatively small issue, people want to debate those things around solving the problem that’s right in front of them. But they’ve got to do that in a way that keeps focused on those three big, broad goals: academic success, health and well-being, and fairness. It’s easy to get drawn off of the main subject if you’re just wrestling with some political issue that’s right in front of you.

College athletics have changed so much since you were at LSU. Assistant football coaches are now making more than Nick Saban made when he was hired at LSU in 1999. Revenues have gone up, salaries are going up, new facilities keep popping up—is the college football arms race getting out of control?

It’s a great question. One of the running jokes among university presidents is that college sports is financially unsustainable and has been for 100 years (laughs). So every year we always stop and look at it and say, “Well, this isn’t sustainable, we can’t keep this up,” and the next year rolls around and we do it. Having said that, there are a couple of things that are really critical here. One is that you’re right, the revenue for many, not the majority, but for many of the prominent athletic programs—and LSU is certainly among them—the revenues have skyrocketed or moved up very dramatically. With that has come another round of spending. One of the things that I’ve been focused on in my six years now is to recognize that for the first part of my tenure, the only thing that hadn’t changed in that timeframe was the scholarship model that student athletes operated under. I wanted to—and a lot of members have come along very nicely now on this—to make sure that as we were spending more and more money on college sports, we were giving student-athletes everything they needed to be successful, including more funding for their scholarships. You’re probably aware of the new cost-of-attendance model that has been, I think, very successful. We had silly rules that were constraining what student-athletes could be fed. The food rules and the meal rules were ridiculous. We’ve gotten that all changed. That has had a positive impact. People were worried about the nature of the scholarship commitment itself. There was a rule on the books that said you couldn’t give a scholarship commitment for more than one year, which was equally silly. We got that changed, so students have a much fairer relationship, and they’re allowed their scholarship, and no they’re not going to lose it because of athletic performance. That has all had a big impact. The changes around health care rules and the investment we’ve made in all of that has made a big difference. So I’m pleased with a lot of the changes that have occurred there, and seeing more money flow in that direction has been more welcome. At the same time, in all kinds of economic competition, whether it’s in business or real estate development or college sports, there’s a tendency to, I guess, over-invest or overbuild. We’ll see whether or not the stadium investments and a variety of other things are actually going to work over the long run. There are a lot of schools that are now looking at some of their long-term capital commitments and saying, “Wow, that was a big bite we took. I hope we can figure out how to pay for it.” If you’re LSU or Alabama or Michigan, then your model probably looks just fine and dandy. If you’re in a lower-revenue tier but you’re trying to stay competitive in your mind by building more stadiums and amenities, that may pencil out and it may not. Schools have got to be very careful about not their immediate commitments but their long-term commitments because some of them are pretty big. In fact, they’re huge.

The Power 5 schools are no doubt seeing their revenue go up. But the schools below that tier, how tough is it for them to compete? Have you found situations where schools are frustrated by the rich getting richer?

Of course they are. The fundamental issue I think is that schools need to determine the level at which they want to and are able to invest in college sports. Because of tradition, because of the size or fan base, because of the success programs have had over decades and not over years, some schools can attract larger revenue from donors, from attendance and ticket sales, and most notably from media coverage. The schools that have been able to do big media contracts, particularly around football—the revenue growth has been very, very football-centric, whether it’s regular season contracts like the SEC has that are so important, or the revenue that flows into the College Football Playoff now. Those dollars are unequivocally skewed toward those (Power) Five conferences, and even inside those five conferences, toward a number of schools. The economic gaps across even the big five conferences can be really substantial. Some schools have very big, monstrous budgets, and some have half their budgets or less, and they all compete in the same conference, let alone across the entire Division I. There’s concern about it. Schools are increasingly saying, “This is the level that we’re going to invest. We’re not going to try to chase those other schools. There are limits on the number of student-athletes that any one school can get, so no matter how much money you spend, you’re only going to have at most 25 recruits in football in any one year and five in basketball in any one year, and we’re going to get our share of good student-athletes and students that fit our school and our program.” While there’s frustration and in some cases disappointment that they can’t make some of those investments, it doesn’t mean they can’t be competitive on the field. We’ve already seen this football season no shortage of upsets that are a function of some pretty darn good teams that compete even though they don’t have those resources. Ask anyone who has played North Dakota State.

At the same time, people are always talking about, at least at power five schools, whether or not college athletes will get paid for playing sports, beyond the cost of attendance the NCAA already provides. Do you think we will ever see a time when that will happen?

It’s as much a philosophical question as a practical or economic one. The question is, what should the relationship be between students and their university? If you were to pay student-athletes a salary—it doesn’t matter what the number is—if you pay somebody a salary to play football for you, let’s say, now they’re no longer a student. They’re an employee. When you make that decision that you’re going to literally now hire students or hire individuals to play football for you, then it completely changes the whole concept of students playing students. The NCAA was founded over 100 years ago in large part to deal with some of those questions. It was not uncommon for schools to go out, back in the late 1800s or early 1900s, and literally hire some guys to play a football game for them for the weekend. They weren’t students. They didn’t necessarily have any relationship with the university. There are those who advocate that that’s what the model should be again. That’s a professionalized model. I guess I understand why people might want to make that argument. But it certainly then begs the question, why would you want those individuals to even be a student? If you’re hiring somebody to play football and their job is to be the best football player, why in the world would you want an 18-year-old? Why wouldn’t you get somebody that just got dropped by the NFL or hire somebody out of the Canadian Football League? Why would you want calculus to get in the way of football? If they’re students and they’re serious students and they represent the student body of that university, then that’s one model. Or they can be somebody who’s just hired to put on a purple and gold uniform on Saturday and go play for the Tigers. Those are two fundamentally different notions. Yeah, there may be a way in which you can figure out an economic model that would allow a school like LSU to do that, but it’s certainly a completely different notion of what college sports would be. I haven’t spoken to a university leader that thinks that the professional model is the way we ought to go, to have employees playing those games.

You mentioned the massive TV deals. How much do those contracts drive some of the decisions that some of the NCAA member schools make?

They’re incredibly impactful—most of it good, but some of it bad. Most of the debates and movements around conference realignment, for example, were over the past five years, and even today as we look at what the Big 12 might be doing. Those are driven, not exclusively by contract considerations, but certainly predominantly by those considerations. As a result, we’ve seen some great sports traditions disappear that I think all of us as fans would’ve loved to have seen continued. But there were changes that were made that were driven by just who can put together the best media deal. I know LSU sees this all the time—we’ve seen TV schedules drive when teams are going to play. At first it was just what time on Saturday, so you wound up with midday games at Tiger Stadium, which everybody dislikes. But it works on a TV schedule, so that’s when the game gets played. Now of course we’re seeing games on multiple days of the week, and sometimes that can be great, and sometimes that can be really problematic. When you play an away game on a Thursday night, it’s easy to forget that those students have classes the next day. It winds up adding to the burden that can be placed on students. To the extent that it creates revenue that’s used to support students and their success, boy I’m all in favor of that. To the extent that it makes students’ lives more complicated and less desirable, well then I don’t like it at all, and I think most people feel that way. But the power of those media contracts is enormous.

Back in August, the NCAA Board of Governors announced that it’s directing the leaders of all its divisions to look into legislation to address incidents of college athletes and sexual violence. Some measures have already been taken, including the resolution adopted in 2014, but what more can the NCAA do to address sexual assault on college campuses?

The Board of Governors just at its last meeting in August established a new standing subcommittee to look at exactly this issue. A couple of university leaders have been asked to lead it. I won’t give you the names right now because it’s still being finalized, but a couple of university presidents (are going to help) determine, first and foremost, what’s the right thing for the national association to be doing? (When) these issues occur on a campus, they have to be handled by the campus in terms of their efforts at prevention and education. In the sad, disturbing instances where we still have assaults or allegations of assaults, we need to let the campuses handle those matters because they’re the only people—they and the local law enforcement—that can. On the other hand, we’ve seen circumstances where athletic departments allegedly have behaved inappropriately and sometimes in very counterproductive ways around these issues. The national body, as an oversight group, can say, “You must follow these kinds of guidelines in dealing with these issues.” That resolution that occurred two years ago now was aimed exactly at that. But as a resolution, it doesn’t carry the weight of being a bylaw or a rule that has to be followed and if violated it could lead to sanctions by the members. So they are looking at, can they stiffen that and what would that look like if it’s converted into a bylaw and how could the members then sanction other members that don’t follow those rules? Similarly, we’re also looking at what we can do to strengthen and beef up our education, both of student-athletes and member schools, on how to do a better job on our campuses in addressing these issues. We’ve done a lot of work in that regard already. We’ve been very active with the White House, very active with our student leader groups, and that I’m really pleased with. But it’s obviously still a huge cultural problem. It’s an issue on campuses, quite independent of athletics. Athletics tends to shine a spotlight on it because of the profile of the athletes themselves. People recognize when an athlete does something that it’s a newsworthy item, and it may not be if it’s not an athlete. We have a special burden, I think, to make sure that we’re providing leadership in this regard, and that’s what the board and I completely agree on.

On the enforcement side: What is the biggest challenge you face with NCAA rules enforcement and investigating allegations of major violations?

It’s an enormous challenge to get to the facts when the structure of the rules are really based on universities and colleges agreeing to be a member of the association, but there’s no force of law behind any of that. If you’re a member of a university community, you’re obligated to participate in and provide information to anybody who’s doing an investigation on the association’s behalf. That’s usually always my staff who are conducting the investigation. But if you’re not part of a university or a college, then you don’t have any responsibility. As third parties or people who are outside of higher education get increasingly involved in these things, it’s challenging to get information about what the real facts are that occurred in a particular case. You can’t subpoena them, you can’t force them to testify, you can’t force them to turn over documents. It’s occasionally really hard to get to the facts. I think the second big challenge is in this era of social media, somebody says something that gets tweeted out that winds up on the ESPN crawler as if it’s fact—that so-and-so says school X did something, and there may even be some nice, juicy quotes—but what’s a validated comment for somebody who’s writing on a blog is different than a fact that you want to use in proving a case that’s going to have an impact on people’s lives. You get a lot of folks that rush to judgment, that reach conclusions without any facts behind them, and then they get frustrated or express displeasure at what the NCAA is doing or the Committee on Infractions is doing. That similarly is a third point, that the world believes that the Committee on Infractions, a group of individuals who are volunteers who actually make judgments and pass out sanctions, that that group is often seen as arbitrary and capricious and inconsistent. Having seen them work and understanding what they do and how they do it, I think just the opposite. I think they’re people who work incredibly hard. It is a thankless job if ever there was one. They’re entirely volunteers just doing this because it’s important to college sports. And they work really, really hard at being consistent. The apparent inconsistency usually occurs because the world doesn’t know all the facts. The world is basing their opinions on what they saw on some fan blog instead of what the real facts on the ground are as they’ve been established. So I think those are the big challenges.

We can’t let you go without asking you about LSU football. Have you been able to keep track of what’s going on with the Tigers, and specifically, what did you think about the way LSU handled the Les Miles saga at the end of last year?

That’s been pretty well commented on (laughs). You don’t need my voice added to everybody else’s, frankly. Universities have to manage those things on their own. One of the differences with me from the average commentator is I’ve sat in the president’s chair. I know how hard it is to manage those things. Nobody needs me adding my voice to those debates or discussions. It’s always hard. It’s always emotional. It’s always something that brings out passion in every direction. You certainly see it in the LSU community because they care so much about the Tigers and their success. I’ve been there when we won a championship, and I’ve been there when we weren’t doing well. I know the difference. I watch them and follow them all that I can. I love the team and care deeply for it. I want them to have nothing but great success on the field and off it. Like everybody else, it pains me when they’re not doing well, but I know it’s as hard on the president and the coach and the AD as it is on anybody, and there’s nobody working harder to make sure that it’s successful than those three folks.

Interview edited for clarity.

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