SAN ANTONIO — NCAA president Mark Emmert experienced his 100th day in office on Wednesday. On Thursday he explained what the next 100 days will be like.
In his first State of the Association speech, he told a packed ballroom of NCAA Convention delegates that by April he’ll work with NCAA presidential groups to propose rules that close glaring loopholes and begin to align behaviors “on the ground” with those that the Association espouses.
Clearly referencing several high-profile controversies that have marked the early part of his tenure as NCAA president, including the investigation into Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, Emmert told delegates that he will work with leadership to make sure they don’t become a recurring theme. He said it’s wrong for parents to attempt to sell the athletics services of their children to a university and that rules are needed to stop that.
Emmert also said that student-athletes must acknowledge that the collegiate experience is distinct from a professional career. “Student-athletes trading on their standing as star athletes for money or benefits is not acceptable, and we need to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.
“Student-athletes are students, not professionals, and we’re not going to pay them or allow other people to pay them to play. Behaviors that undermine the collegiate model wherever they occur are a threat to those basic values, and we can’t tolerate them. If we believe in those values, we need to be ready to defend them, and if we don’t, we have to be ready to accept the criticism that comes from not doing so.”
That “can-do” message resonated with an audience that had just evidenced the collegiate model at its best.
Eschewing the traditional podium-and-teleprompter approach of past Conventions, Emmert wore a wireless mic and “interviewed” student-athletes Ashley Karpinos of Kenyon, Robert Griffin of Baylor and Neely Spence of Shippensburg, all of whom either did achieve or still are achieving high marks inside and outside of athletics.
Karpinos (formerly Rowatt) was an accomplished swimmer at Kenyon and the 2003 NCAA Woman of the Year. She’s now a physician at Vanderbilt Medical Center and said that her athletics participation helped her constantly seek to improve.
“At Kenyon that meant constantly improving athletically and academically. Now as a doctor, I am in constant pursuit of improving my professional skills,” she said. “What I learned from athletics is to make goal-setting a habit.”
Griffin, Baylor’s quarterback, graduated in December after just three years of school with a degree in political science. He’ll be a junior athletically next season and will work on a master’s. He has law school in his sights, too.
“I thought it would be great if I got two degrees out of my scholarship rather than have my parents pay for it,” Griffin said to a crowdful of laughter.
But delegates also appreciated Griffin’s life plan. Even though his NFL prospects are high, Griffin isn’t banking on them. “I have two plans,” he said. “Plan A is to go to law school after I finish my communications degree, and Plan B is to go to the NFL.
“If plan B works out, that’s fine, but if it doesn’t, I always have plan A.”
The third student-athlete highlight was Shippensburg runner Neely Spence, who just last month won the individual title at the Division II Women’s Cross Country Championships.
More than just a champion, though, Spence also received an NCAA Sportsmanship Award for her acts of kindness at her conference championships that enabled another runner to qualify for the national meet. “It was just the right thing to do,” Spence said before being interrupted by thunderous applause.
Emmert used those student-athlete stories to illustrate five values he believes are core to the Association. Karpinos, he said, represents the Association’s need to “be focused like a laser on the success of our student-athletes.”
Through Griffin, Emmert illustrated that student-athletes are not professionals during their collegiate days, even if some of them aspire to play professional sports.
“And what would it be like if we didn’t have Neely Spence’s story?” he said, pointing out the need for institutions to offer as many opportunities for student-athletes as they can through broad-based athletics offerings.
Value No. 4, Emmert said, “is that athletics is an integral part of what we know as American higher education.” Value No. 5 — the collegiate model — essentially is a combination of all of the others into an enterprise that all NCAA members must work to protect.
“While it is true that we need to have good media contracts and generate revenue and make sure we are using resources wisely, that’s not the business of athletics,” Emmert said. “The business that we’re in is what we just saw in those three student-athletes — supporting students and helping them be successful in all their endeavors.”
In the coming days, Emmert said he’ll begin working with the three divisional presidential bodies and by April have a package of proposals that makes “positive efforts to addressing these problems.”
“But I also want to be clear about this,” Emmert said, “passing new rules alone doesn’t fix any of these problems. We need to work with our coaches, our ADs, our student leaders — all of those people who understand how these issues play out on the ground so that we don’t just change a rule but change behavior.”
• The NCAA squashed a proposal that would have stopped college coaches from offering scholarships to students as young as middle-schoolers, one of several closely watched measures that were either defeated or set aside by NCAA rule-makers.
The defeat of the early scholarship proposal came after another NCAA committee last year backed the idea. It would have prohibited scholarships offers in all sports to recruits before July 1 in the summer between their junior and senior years in high school.
“The concern is how is that enforceable? You don’t want to adopt legislation you can’t enforce,” said Shane Lyons, chairman of the legislative council and the ACC’s associate commissioner.
The issue has drawn headlines when some men’s basketball coaches started making offers to middle school players. Lyons imagined the proposal creating a constant cycle of flung allegations over schools secretly promising young athletes scholarship offers.
“There would be allegations all the time,” he said.
• The legislative council also voted down tougher academic restrictions for incoming basketball players. Another proposal intended to tighten the use of college athletes in promotional activities was sent back to NCAA members for more comment.
The issue involving likeness of student athletes could be revisited in three to four months, Lyons said. Under the proposal, schools would have greater autonomy to use the likeness of their most recognizable stars in school and charitable promotions.
Lyons called it one of the “hottest topics” that the NCAA will continue to discuss during the next three to four months.
“There’s some concern of potential exploitation and more and more uses of the student athlete’s likeness,” Lyons said.
• In other council decisions, a proposal to move the date players can withdraw from the NBA Draft and return to school from late May to mid-April was sent out for more comment. So was a proposal prohibiting players from opting out of the sickle-cell trait test.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.