NCAA president Mark Emmert

The NCAA president delves into the Penn State scandal, the 40th anniversary of the Title IX ruling, educational requirements for athletes and whether college athletes should be paid.

In 2010, Mark Emmert became the fifth president of the NCAA. He previously spent some 30 years in administrative and academic positions at various universities, including president of his alma mater, the University of Washington, and chancellor of Louisiana State. He's written extensively on higher education and public administration and is a member of the Higher Education Working Group on Global Issues as part of the Council on Foreign Relations. He also served on the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board. Emmert holds both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in public administration.


Tavis: Since 2010, Dr. Mark Emmert has been serving as the president of the NCAA, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and prior to that he served as chancellor at LSU and president of his alma mater, the University of Washington. Dr. Emmert, sir, an honor to have you on this program.

Mark Emmert: Oh, entirely my pleasure.

Tavis: I was saying to my staff before you walked in, you’re the one guy I expected to cancel this week. (Laughter)

Emmert: It’s been a busy week.

Tavis: Yeah, with all the stuff on your plate, I didn’t think you were going to make it. But thank you for honoring the agreement to be here.

Emmert: Oh, my pleasure to be here. It’s good to talk to you.

Tavis: Let’s start with the Penn State stuff and get that out of the way, and that phrase sounds a little strange, given that I think there are going to be reverberations from this for years to come.

So “getting it out of the way” might not be the right phrase. But I want to discuss other things with you tonight, and that’s what I meant by that.

Emmert: Sure.

Tavis: But let me just start by asking your overall thoughts on this scandal, and there are a few other questions, obviously, I want to ask before we move on.

Emmert: Well, like so many people, I read originally the grand jury indictments, I listened to the testimony of victims through that trial, I’ve read the Freeh report a couple-three times now, I’ve paid attention to all the other data that’s coming out around that, and I’m a dad, I’ve got a grandbaby now, and you look at all that and it’s just such a despicable set of acts that were enabled, it appears, by an organization culture.

You just come away from it thinking how in the world can this happen at a great university like Penn State or any other university? And so we’re looking at it, as you know, trying to ascertain what role in all of this NCAA has to play. We don’t want to get involved in any of the criminal investigations or any of the civil or other investigations or cases that might be going on.

But it’s pretty hard to read that report and not conclude that there were systemic failures across the institution, including and in some cases especially within the athletic department that strikes at the heart of what education is all about and what athletics is supposed to be about.

So it’s deeply, deeply troubling. It’s just hard to stay unemotional about this case.

Tavis: Is that your way of saying that the school indeed lacked institutional control over the program? You know why I’m asking that.

Emmert: I do, I do.

Tavis: This is your language – if the NCAA gets involved, they get involved under the authority of this clause that institutional control was lacking over the program. So is that your way of saying that?

Emmert: Well, what we did back in November, when the accusations first came out and we reviewed, my staff and I and legal counsel all reviewed the grand jury testimony, I wrote, not our investigator, but I personally wrote to the president of Penn State and said, look, here are a handful of questions that you need to answer for us, at the end of which we will make a determination as to whether or not we’re going to open a formal investigation around institutional control and ethical behavior, et cetera.

Those terms of art inside the NCAA. Penn State has now got the Freeh report. They’d asked to wait to respond until they had the Freeh report. They’ve got it now. We’re in active discussions with Penn State right now, and I need to get a response back from them soon, right away, and then we’re going to make that determination.

Then we’ll see where we go here. This is so big. The issue is not like anything else that college athletics has ever seen. We can’t just simply walk away from this one and say gee, I don’t know if this fits the normal pattern. It doesn’t fit any normal pattern, thank God, but it certainly strikes at some of the core values that we hold closely.

Tavis: When you say they have to get back, Penn State needs to get back to the NCAA soon, right away – those are your words – what does that mean? What kind of time frame are we talking about here?

Emmert: Weeks, not months.

Tavis: Weeks.

Emmert: Yes.

Tavis: There are those who have looked at this, of course, inside and out, and they can’t put their finger on any specific NCAA violations that have occurred. Obviously it’s despicable. You’ve been very clear about how it, beyond troubling you is just damning to the institution and to college sports, and I’m paraphrasing your words here.

But what NCAA violations might they have violated? Because there’s clearly a criminal case here, but I’m reading a lot of sports commentators who are saying, or trying to figure out what the violations might be that would allow the NCAA to step in and do anything, for that matter.

Emmert: Sure. Clearly this case isn’t like a student athlete getting impermissible benefits or an academic fraud case. It’s something completely different. But the fundamental core of what the NCAA is supposed to be doing is promoting athletics in a collegiate environment and supporting all the values that come along with collegiate athletics.

The values not just of fair play but also of high ethical standards, of honesty and integrity, and developing programs that teach that to young men and young women as part of their educational experience. We’re going to get answers back from them on those questions of institutional control.

Demonstrate to us that you had control over this program in a way that would allow you to follow all the rules and comply with the values of athletics. Demonstrate to us, convince us that everybody behaved in an ethical fashion. Then we’re going to go back and determine whether or not it meets or fails to meet those definitions.

Tavis: I think of SMU coming to mind immediately; there are many other examples I could think of, but certainly SMU comes to mind. Maybe even Baylor comes to mind. But there are other examples of schools that you, the NCAA, that is, have come down pretty hard on that weren’t anywhere near as egregious as this.

So if ever, it would seem to many of us, if ever there were a case where the death penalty would be applied, this would be that case. I don’t expect you to tell me what you’re going to do, because you don’t know yet because you’re doing this investigation, but let me just ask if you have ever seen anything in your life, anything in your career, that comes anywhere near to the egregious nature of this vis-à-vis the use of the death penalty, the application of it.

Emmert: Well, I don’t want to necessarily tie those two things together. I’ve never seen anything as egregious as this in terms of just overall conduct and behavior inside a university, and hope never to see it again. What the appropriate penalties are, if there are determinations of violations, we’ll have to decide, and we’ll hold in abeyance all of those decisions until we’ve actually decided what we want to do with the actual charges, should there be any.

I don’t want to take anything off the table. The fact is this is completely different than an impermissible benefits scandal like happened at SMU or anything else that we’ve dealt with. This is as systemic a cultural problem as it is a football problem.

There’ve been people that said, “Well, this wasn’t a football scandal.” Well, it was more than football scandal. Much more than a football scandal. It was that, but much more, and we’ll have to figure out exactly what the right penalties are. I don’t know that past precedent makes particularly good sense in this case, because it’s really an unprecedented problem.

Tavis: Since you referenced past precedent, though, let’s go back to SMU. There are those who argue that the NCAA has its hands tied, and they really might not have – I’m trying to find the right word – they might not be willing. I was going to say courage; I’m not going to say that.

They might not be willing to come down with the death penalty in this case because they saw what happened to SMU. Some would argue that program was decimated and that Penn State and programs like it are too important to college athletics overall to see a program that historic and that great get decimated by this kind of rule. What say you to those persons who think that the NCAA already knows that it’s not going to go that far?

Emmert: Well, again, I don’t want to pre-judge where we’re going to wind up with penalties, but right now is a very special moment in the history of the NCAA. There’s an enormous amount of political courage, if you will, or will to do the right thing on a variety of cases, and we’ve been demonstrating that again and again in recent months.

And so whatever penalty structure is put in place again, if there’s findings of violations of our rules, the decision will not be based upon people want to be courageous or not.

Tavis: You have been the chancellor at a great school, LSU, the president of another great school, University of Washington, so you know what it means to be the top dog, as it were, which means that you know what it means to do the dance with the athletic director, the dance with the coaches, and there’s great conversation, as you well know, in this country right now about how, in fact, a coach, even a coach as great as Joe Paterno, could have that kind of influence over everybody, it seems, in leadership at an institution?

What say you to persons who are just concerned about the outsize control that athletic programs and their leaders and coaches have in college sports?

Emmert: I think that’s one of the biggest questions in front of us with this particular case or any case where an athletic program or power coaches, that we like to call them, become bigger than life or bigger than the institution.

Now, this isn’t about being too big to fail, it’s more like being too big to even question or even to intrude on and control. If those are the realities that were going on in this program, we need to then, again, figure out how do we fix that culture?

That’s what Penn State’s wrestling with right now, it’s board and its new president. They’re all trying to say, along with us looking at it, what in the world happened here? How is this possible?

Here’s these unbelievable acts, right, that were enabled or at least not stopped in an across the institutional failure. Something certainly appears, and the Freeh report points in this direction, there was just out of kilter in terms of the power relationships and the authority relationships. That just can’t happen.

Tavis: When parents send their kids off to school and they expect their kids to be a part of a program that is honorable, that is above-board, that certainly engages in legal activity and now have concerns about what’s really happening in college sports, what say you to parents tonight across the country?

Emmert: Well, I guess the good news is if this is a silver lining of a minor proportion, is that the Penn State case is in part so shocking because it’s so rare, right? We’ve never seen anything like this in my career and in fact in the history of college sports.

So the good news is that we now have this horrible object lesson. It’s caused, I know, from talking to presidents of universities all across the country, it’s caused everyone to go back and look at their programs. What controls do we have in place, how are we educating people to deal with these issues, what ways are we structuring it so we’ve got anonymous reporting lines, how do we deal with these kind of issues.

So we need to also try and use this disastrous circumstance as something that’s a catalyst to positive improvements. Having spent 30 years of my life on university campuses, I know that they are wonderfully safe environments. They have problems. Of course, they have crime and other issues, but they’re wonderfully safe environments for young people.

Presidents, deans, coaches, they all work very hard to maintain that environment. In this particular case it went sadly awry.

Tavis: Let me unapologetically shift 180 degrees, because again, there are other things I want to talk about, and if that happens to be the worst example of what can happen in college sports, one of the best examples is something that happened 40 years ago – Title IX, which opened up the door for women to engage programs or belong to programs where they had been previously treated rather unfairly. What’s your assessment and how will the NCAA celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX?

Emmert: Well, this is one of the most important civil rights laws in American history. It has unequivocally changed the lives of millions of young women and girls. I simply look at my own case – my wife’s very athletic. We went to a small high school together. The number of opportunities available to her were trivial.

My daughter came along and all of a sudden she’s playing every sport, and now I’ve got his little baby granddaughter for whom I hope the world is such that she doesn’t even think about the idea that opportunities would be denied her.

So we’ve changed that experience completely, one of the ways we celebrated is we put together a wonderful film with ESPN, Northwestern Mutual financed it for us. It was a great event, did a big unveiling in New York and had a bunch of wonderful women athletes there.

Jackie Joyner Kersey, one of everybody’s role models, right?

Tavis: Best ever, yeah.

Emmert: Best ever, literally, athlete of the century, right?

Tavis: That’s Jackie.

Emmert: Unbelievable. So Jackie tells the story that when she started into sports in middle school they had no sports, and so they said, “You’ve got to be a cheerleader.” So she spent – imagine this, (laughter) the greatest athlete of the century is told, “You have to be a cheerleader.”

Now I joked with her. I said, “You must have been the world’s best cheerleader,” (laughter) and she said, “Yeah, I was.” But then the next year the track coach said, “Well, you can come run with us.” But here’s this woman trying to break through all of that, and then at the same time we had Cheyenne Woods there, Tiger’s cousin, and for her, playing sport was just a natural thing.

So in one generation we’ve shifted it – you can’t forget the women that fought through that, that made this happen, that worked hard at it, great supporters in Congress that got it done. It’s a landmark bit of legislation that’s had incredible impact on opportunity for people.

Tavis: Again, so much stuff happening at the NCAA these days. Great conversation in the country now about these new academic standards that the institution is imposing, and what this really – I’ll let you explain it. You can do it much better than I can.

But ultimately, what it does is it raises the bar, and there, as you might imagine, is debate on both sides of this, but it raises the bar of entry, the academic bar of entry for kids going to college. Tell me what the new rules are.

Emmert: Well first of all, it’s a very simple notion. We went back and looked at, with a group of great faculty and university presidents and looked at the success rates of students and said, “What do you need to be successful in college while you’re being an athlete in terms of your academic preparation?”

We know nationally too many kids are showing up at college, whether they’re athletes or not, not prepared. They don’t have the strengths in math or science or English. So we went in and said, look, we know that if kids show up with a 2.5 GPA instead of a 2.2 GPA, we know that if they’ve taken courses spread across their junior and sophomore years as well as just jamming all the required courses into their senior year their probability of success shoots up.

So we’ve said starting with the kids who are entering their freshman year of high school right now, in four years you’ve got to come out and you’ve got to not just have a 2.2, you’ve got to have a 2.5 in the core courses, and you’ve got to spread those courses across multiple years, not just in one year.

The analogy I keep saying is look, when a kid shows up to play basketball, let’s say, he knows he’s got to have a jump shot and a good left hand. What we’re also saying, yeah, you’ve got to have that, and you’ve got to have English and you’ve got to have math and you’ve got to have some science skills.

Have that whole package. Then the probability that you’re going to get what athletics really has to offer you, the great learning experiences of athletics plus an education, zoom up.

So we’re communicating now to schools all across the country, to coaches, to advisers, to everyone, look, if you’ve got a young man, young woman that wants to play college sport, they need to start paying attention to their schoolwork as well as their athletic skills. I think it’s going to have a transformative impact.

It’s already had a great impact from the last set of transformations we did about 10 years ago. Athletic graduation rates are the highest they’ve ever been. At virtually every campus athletes graduate at a higher rate than non-athletes, people are always surprised to hear that.

For students of color it has a huge impact. African American males who are athletes in their school have a 12 percentage point graduation rate higher than the ones who aren’t athletes. So the support and structure they get around an athletic program and the demands that the rules place on them tend to work really, really well of getting them what’s the real prize – not just going to a championship, but getting that degree.

We all have our critics, and the NCAA certainly has its critics. What the critics are saying about this, to your point about students of color, is that African Americans, Hispanics and other kids of color, students of color, athletes of color, are going to be most negatively, disproportionately impacted, put another way, and the argument is simply this: You raise the bar of entry, so many of these kids come from schools that don’t have the best teachers, don’t have the best resources.

They may be a great athlete, but they’re from a low-income neighborhood, they go to a low-income school.

Emmert: Sure.

Tavis: Their skill is in whatever sport they play. By raising the bar to 2.5, you have now basically ensured that they’re not going to be able to make the cut, because while you’ve raised the bar on their performance, there’s no additional support going to that institution, that school, to help them to achieve at a higher level academically.

So what do you say to persons concerned about the impact negatively disproportionate, it might have on athletes of color?

Emmert: Yeah, well, a couple things. First of all, while the academic threshold for participation in college sports is going to move from a 2.2 to a 2.5, you can still go to school and get an athletic scholarship with a 2.2. In other words, that floor will be the same as it is today, but you’ll go and spend your freshman year not competing. You can practice.

Tavis: Okay.

Emmert: You can be part of this team, you can get athletic support, but you’ve got to get your academic house in order, right? Get those skills up to snuff and then you can go compete on the floor or on the field. So we’re not going to cut off access in that sense; quite the opposite. We’re going to say, “Look, come to school, get your skills ready, and then go compete and get your academic (unintelligible).”

Tavis: Is that like an academic red shirt? Do they still have five years, a total of five years to compete?

Emmert: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, it’s an academic red shirt, that’s the best way to describe it.

Tavis: Right.

Emmert: The second piece is that we know that when we’ve done this in the past, when we went to the 2.2 model just eight years ago, there was a little dip to begin with, and then all of a sudden all the performance of all students, including students of color, shot up.

What we’re finding is that – and this I find a fun irony – is that the NCAA and Athletic Association has an opportunity to have a pretty profound impact on all those schools. No high school wants to say, we’re not getting kids ready to play NCAA ball. We’ve got to be attentive to this, too.

So as we talk to counselors and superintendents and principals, they’re saying, okay, fine. We’re going to make sure that we’re providing these opportunities for young men and young women. Coaches are now saying, look, we’ve got to get these programs in place for these kids.

I would love nothing more than to come back in four or five years and say, “Look what happened. We not only raised the success rate of our student athletes, we helped drive change in schools that need it badly.” These kids are being let down. They’re not being supported enough in their K-12 schools, and then when they get to higher education, they don’t have a chance.

Tavis: George Bush as president did a lot of things that I personally didn’t agree with, but there’s one line that he used I’ve said any number of times. There’s one line that President Bush used with regard to education that I thought was a great line, and it applies to what we’re talking about now.

He talked about what he termed “The soft bigotry of low expectations.” (Laughter) I love that phrase – “The soft bigotry of low expectations.” What you’re basically saying is that you have found in the past that when you raise the bar these kids jump over it, and people help them jump over it if they want to play college sports.

So I think that at the end of the day, I think you’re right. In a few years we’ll be having another conversation about the fact that once you raised the bar and demanded more of these kids, they met the challenge.

Emmert: These are amazing kids. They really are. When you raise the expectation – you’ve got to give them the support. They can’t get over that bar by themselves.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Emmert: But if you’re also holding the programs accountable, so we’ve now changed our standards also for the teams themselves, so once you get to school, if you’re going to be on a team, that team has to be on track to graduate at least half of its kids. That doesn’t seem like a wild expectation.

Tavis: Yeah.

Emmert: If you’re not on track, then we’re not going to let you participate in our championships. So next year, for example, in the men’s basketball championship, there’ll be a lot of schools that will not be able to compete. They’ll become eligible on the court but not in the classroom, and now coaches are saying, “Okay, fine, we’ve got to get you ready for college and we’ve got to keep you eligible, got to keep you on track.”

Tavis: Speaking of championships, we now have a playoff system –

Emmert: We do. (Laughter)

Tavis: – in college football, so I assume you’re okay with this, you’re happy with this?

Emmert: Yeah, I think it’s fine. It’s a great step in the right direction, in my opinion. As you know, we don’t run that championship. We run 89 championships, not that one. NCAA’s never run the 1A football championship; there’s never been such a thing.

So it’s terrific. We’ll have four teams that are going to be picked by an as yet to be determined process. They have playoff games and semifinals and now the championship game, so I think that’ll at least partially satisfy folks that have been clamoring for a championship game.

Tavis: I know you have been opposed to this perennially, it seems, and you’re entitled to your opinion, but this raises that perennial question of whether or not college athletes ought to be paid. Again, I know you’ve been opposed to that. Tell me why you’re opposed to it.

Emmert: Well, I’m opposed to paying players. I want to make a very clear distinction here between these two things. Because these are students, right, they come to college to get an education and to develop their skills as an athlete. For the vast majority of them they don’t play beyond college. This is the end of their athlete career, for the most part.

But once you convert an athlete, a student athlete, into an employee, then that relationship’s all completely different. Then why do we even require that they be students? If we just want them to be employees who work for the university, then let’s just subcontract with the local minor league team and get on with it.

This is about putting college students on the court, on the field, the best college students that play representing that school as part of that student body. Converting them to professionals and employees completely changes the nature of that relationship. What I’ve been advocating for, and I think the playoffs and the revenue that’s being developed right now is unprecedented in all of these areas.

I certainly think there’s a way we can figure out how to pay for this, is that we’ve got to cover the full cost of attendance for a student to go to school. Right now we cover tuition fees, room, board, books and supplies. We don’t cover something called miscellaneous expenses, and that’s the trip to go home to see Mom and Dad, the clothing allowance, miscellaneous food expenses, a variety of things like that.

That number runs around, depends, varies from zero to $5,000. We’ve got a proposal in the works right now among the membership to allow schools to provide $2,000 in miscellaneous expense allowance if the school deems that they want to do it. I think it’s going to be coming in under the football model and the other media contracts that are out there right now.

I think there’s plenty of money to provide kids a chance to just pay for their school and cover all their costs.

Tavis: But as you know, there are some folk already saying we can’t afford that.

Emmert: I know that. (Laughter)

Tavis: Which is laughable.

Emmert: I know. But the majority of schools do in fact lose money on sport, and so most schools, people think they’re all making money, and they’re not. But there’s an awful lot of money in intercollegiate athletics right now, and surely, bunch of smart people, we can figure out how to provide student athletes with that last little gap of money that’s not there.

These kids can’t take part-time jobs like I did when I was a student. They’re putting in a lot of time and energy, and college sports is now a 12-month activity. It’s not like they have summer off to go work, again, like most of us did. So I’m ready to try and find a way to give them a break here.

Tavis: Yeah. You have been kind to sit and listen to me ask all these questions. I know there’s, again, so much going on at the NCAA these days, and for you to come and address these, I’m grateful.

Emmert: My pleasure. Let’s do it again.

Tavis: Dr. Emmert, glad to have you here.

Emmert: You bet.

Tavis: Take care. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: July 17, 2012 at 3:07 pm