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NCAA President Mark Emmert discusses state of college athletics

By Andrew Grottkau     4/5/16 9:01pm

The Final Four has attracted all kinds of celebrities, public figures and fans to Houston this weekend. For most, it is a time to sit back and enjoy watching basketball. For NCAA President Mark Emmert, however, the tournament is his job. On Friday, Emmert stopped by Rice University to speak with President David Leebron about his role as NCAA president.

In recent years, Emmert has come under immense scrutiny for his handling of all kinds of situations. One of the major topics of criticism has been the debate about whether or not the NCAA should pay its student-athletes. With coaches earning tens of millions of dollars per year, television deals earning hundreds of millions of dollars and ticket sales pouring millions of dollars into universities, many people argue that student-athletes deserve to be paid for their roles in generating this revenue. During his talk, however, Emmert said that paying the players is not an option.

“The relationship is either one of students that are involved in higher education that are involved in athletics, or it is an employee-employer relationship where this athlete is involved in the entertainment industry,” Emmert said. “College sport has always been in that developmental model; this is part of education.”

In addition to the pay-for-play debate, Emmert has dealt with backlash concerning the “one-and-done” model that has become prominent in men’s college basketball. The NBA has a rule that every player must wait one year between graduating high school and declaring for the NBA draft. Due to this rule, many players decide to go to college and play basketball with the intention to leave after one year.

Because only certain coaches recruit athletes they know will leave after one season, this model allows coaches to create “super teams.” Critics argue that the model also devalues the role of higher education in college athletics because the student-athletes do not intend to complete their degrees. According to Emmert, the “one-and-done” model is something he disagrees with but cannot easily change.

“These are not NCAA rules; this is a rule that is embedded in the labor contract between the professional players’ association and the owners,” Emmert said. “I think what [the one-and-done rule] does is completely antithetical to what we do.”

The one-and-done rule is one of a few ways the gap between the top schools and the average schools is widening in college sports. Another reason is revenue. In college football, there are 10 conferences. Of those 10, five are considered the Power Five conferences and receive the majority of the revenue from the College Football Playoff, the football version of the Final Four. These five conferences, such as the Southeastern Conference, then use this revenue to fund their programs and widen the gap between them and the other five conferences, including Rice’s conference, Conference USA.

The NCAA does not receive revenue from the College Football Playoff because it is an independent event. Because of this, there is no NCAA football champion. The bigger issue, however, is the way that revenue is affecting balance between the Power Five conferences and the remaining conferences. According to Emmert, this is an issue the NCAA must address in the coming years but is not pressing at the moment.

“I think [the conference structure] is working fine right now,” Emmert said. “We’ll have to see where it leads in another three to five years because the financial bifurcation right now is going to stress how we make decisions.”

Finally, on the topic of concussions in football and the studies currently underway to determine the impact of playing football on health later in life, Emmert took a hard stance. When asked if the NCAA would consider providing students with insurance if it were determined that playing football was linked to dementia, Emmert said insurance was not a fair compromise.

“If it’s clear that playing football or any other sport properly leads to dementia then we ought to stop playing that sport,” Emmert said. “The notion that if we know this sport causes dementia, that we are going to give you a cash payment is pretty inconsistent with the values of higher education.”

Emmert and the NCAA are still working through scandals, including one involving the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team, which played at the Final Four this weekend. They are funding concussion studies and lobbying the NBA to change its one-and-done rule while fighting back against lawsuits calling for student-athletes to be paid. The future of college sports is unclear, and Emmert will have no shortage of work to do in the coming years to determine its course.

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