By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
As the reform effort in Division I gains momentum, presidents are saying that continued leadership from the top – which is where the movement began in the first place – is necessary to nurture the cultural shift required to transform intercollegiate athletics.
The movement began with a presidential call for change. In August 2011, NCAA President Mark Emmert hosted 50 college and university presidents and chancellors at a retreat aimed at identifying the biggest challenges in intercollegiate athletics and charting a course for transformation. The event also brought athletics directors, faculty athletics representatives and conference commissioners to the table.
Since that gathering nearly a year ago, the reform effort has been led, shepherded and endorsed by presidents; not only the Division I Board of Directors and those involved with NCAA working groups but also presidents and chancellors who believe in reform and champion it at their individual schools.
To the presidents on campus, their leadership, and the leadership of their colleagues, is crucial, both nationally and on individual campuses.
Middle Tennessee State President Sidney McPhee chairs the Student-Athlete Well-Being Working Group, which conceived the now-effective multiyear scholarship concept. His group also is working on a revised miscellaneous expense allowance proposal that will be considered again by the Board later this year.
“We’re a membership organization made up of colleges and universities,” McPhee said. “The CEOs are the leaders. They provide the direction; they provide the vision working with the various coaches, athletics directors, and others who support the university. So, you have to have buy-in from the CEOs for this to work.”
Cornell President David Skorton agrees. He said support from presidents is not only important to help convince others, but also to prompt creative solutions and ultimately champion the change in culture.
“The person on each campus responsible in an overall sense for this experience is the college president,” Skorton said. “The NCAA has very wisely promulgated the idea of presidential leadership, presidential guidance in all things related to the colleges, including intercollegiate athletics. It’s very important that presidents are involved in learning what the problems are, seeing what the possibilities are and moving toward a brighter tomorrow in terms of making intercollegiate athletics something of which we’re even more proud.”
That desire to improve the college experience for student-athletes and preserve the collegiate model is what drives many presidents, says Timothy White, chancellor of UC Riverside. Part of improving that experience means ensuring that student-athletes have access to fair competition against opponents that are playing by the same rules.
“There was a very strong feeling among the presidents and chancellors that we need to change the playing field and make sure that people who do behave badly get caught, and when they do, wish to God they hadn’t behaved badly,” said Oregon State President Ed Ray, chair of the group examining enforcement processes and procedures. “I’ve been very pleased with the level of presidential commitment to the reform initiatives, not just with the sentiments I heard at the retreat. … I feel good about where we are overall.”
And while the broad presidential community, like Ray, supports the overall concept of reform, last winter’s attempted override of the multiyear scholarship legislation and the suspension of the rule that would have allowed schools to provide student-athletes with additional funding beyond a full scholarship prove that thorough, thoughtful conversation with the presidents is imperative before any rules changes can be adopted.
The resulting “measured but decisive” approach to reform illustrates that the presidents are carefully considering input from all corners before making any future decisions. The presidents left the Indianapolis retreat last summer with a firm resolve to act quickly. While that commitment has not faltered, they understand that better decisions will be made if different viewpoints are considered.
“We have to work to make sure that all of the presidents understand the nuances of each proposal,” White said. “When you’re a president sitting in your campus in your state, you’re just touching this from time to time. It’s hard to really understand the depth. We have some work to do, but not on the presidential commitment. It is very firm – top-to-bottom, left-to-right.”
Skorton further explained that the presidents can’t make the important, meaningful decisions without input from the professionals who really understand and devote their lives to the enterprise of collegiate athletics.
“If we take into account all those points of view, all those options and all that expertise, it’s going to take a while to get it right,” Skorton said. “There will be suggestions for the destination and for the strategy to be achieved. Then there will be testing of those strategies with the professionals. The role of the presidents is to hold everybody’s feet to the fire to maintain that values-based leadership and values-based management.”
Clemson President James Barker, chair of the group examining NCAA rules, said the presidents are charged with oversight of the entire university, and the athletics portion is magnified because of the public and media attention that department receives.
“There’s never been a time when college sports are more popular, more attended or have more viewers, but there’s also never been a time when the NCAA has been more criticized,” Barker said. “This is a moment that we have to seize. It’s time to have some response.”
Over the next year, the presidents will consider changes to the enforcement of NCAA rules as well as the rules themselves. While they will reflect on and integrate some of the input provided by the daily practitioners within college athletics, they ultimately understand that the road to an improved student-athlete experience starts and ends with them.