NCAA President Mark Emmert on Thursday night called upon leaders in college sports to rise to the challenge of escorting it through “one of the most important moments in its history,” noting that the next three or four years could define intercollegiate athletics for decades to come.

But in his address to more than 2,000 athletics administrators at the 2015 NCAA Convention, Emmert also reflected on the magnitude of recent changes in college sports. Those point to an evolution that, he believes, is pushing all three NCAA divisions in the right direction.

Emmert made his remarks during the Convention’s opening business session. He was joined by the highest-ranking leaders in the NCAA: Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University and the chair of the Division I Board of Directors, the top Division I committee; Lou Anna Simon, president of Michigan State University and chair of the NCAA Board of Governors; Thomas J. Haas, president of Grand Valley State University and chair of the Division II Presidents Council, the top Division II committee; and Sharon Herzberger, president of Whittier College and chair of the Division III Presidents Council, the top Division III committee.

“We’ve made a lot of change and had a lot of success in the last three years or so, and I don’t mean just in bylaws or policy actions,” Emmert said. “We’ve also made a lot of changes in the way we think about some of these issues and even some of the philosophical discussions we bring to these issues.”

For example, Emmert noted, three years ago Division I schools were not permitted to offer athletes multiyear scholarships that guaranteed their continued access to a college education even if they no longer had a spot on a team. “It was a large given,” Emmert said, “that was the way the NCAA should be run.”

But today, multiyear scholarships are not only allowed, membership in some Division I conferences requires them. Together with other changes in Division I – flexibility in providing meals for athletes and more stringent academic requirements, for instance – the changes have brought added benefits to college athletes in the NCAA’s most-scrutinized division.

“Today there’s greater clarity, there’s faster resolution, there’s more flexibility, there’s more focus on individual responsibility than there was not long ago,” Emmert said.

A challenge remains, however, in how the public understands college sports, Emmert said. For most people, fall Saturdays mean college football; the winter leading into the month of March is synonymous with men’s basketball.

“The student-athletes who play those games in FBS football and men’s basketball and show up on national TV constitute 3 percent of the total of NCAA athletes,” Emmert said. “But that’s how the world sees it – it sees the sliver of the 3 percent.

“If you look at it from the perspective of the 97 percent – the vast majority – you see other issues and other concerns and other challenges,” he continued. “For us, as we make decisions, as you collectively – and each of your governing bodies – make decisions, we need to make sure that the success of the 3 percent doesn’t come at the cost of the 97 percent.”

Also at the opening business session, Emmert presented University of Hartford President Walter Harrison with the NCAA’s Gerald R. Ford Award, given to an individual who has provided significant leadership as an advocate for college sports over the course of their career. The award was presented at a fitting time: at an NCAA Convention where a new governance structure for Division I will convene for the first time. That structure includes a replacement for the Division I Committee on Academic Performance, which Harrison has chaired for the past 10 years.

The chief accomplishment of that committee, Harrison noted in accepting the Ford award, was the academic reform that has led to increased academic success and graduation rates for college athletes. “This is a very tumultuous and possibly dangerous time for Division I athletics,” said Harrison, who is now joining the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. “An enormous influx of dollars into collegiate sports has brought in huge pressures.”

Those pressures apply across the Association. While Division I – with a new governance structure in place in time for this week’s NCAA Convention, and with student-athletes getting a vote for the first time on the highest-ranking Division I committee – is attracting attention this week, the majority of NCAA members are in Divisions II and III.

What Herzberger called “the athletic creep” – the intrusion of athletics into academics – continues to be discussed in Division III, she said. “We still have improvements to make,” Herzberger said. “We continue to be concerned … about the stresses of students trying to balance their work as a student-athlete with their academics.”

In Division II, much of the discussion at Convention will focus on the division’s plan to launch a new strategic plan as well as a new branding initiative that will be finalized Friday.

Division II is also following the lead of the other two in one respect: It will vote Saturday on whether to add a pair of student-athletes to the Division II Management Council, who would share a combined vote.

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