As Charlie Baker takes the reins at the NCAA, he has the opportunity to be different from his predecessor.
At the stroke of midnight this morning, while the true college basketball heads were busy tweeting “THIS IS MARCH!!!!!,” the college sports landscape changed.
Mark Emmert is out, and Charlie Baker is now the President of the NCAA.
In many ways, being NCAA president is a thankless job — something a former Republican governor from Massachusetts should be familiar with. But that doesn’t mean Baker needs to stumble through it blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back and feet constantly slipping on errant banana peels like his predecessor, a guy who twice oversaw projects that lost over $100 million.
While Charlie Baker will have university presidents to answer to, and will undoubtedly enrage fans countless times along the way, there are a few simple ways he can be an effective leader with the NCAA.
Be Proactive, Not Reactive
One of the biggest criticisms of the NCAA over the past few years has been how it let outside bodies dictate how it would run its own organization. With NIL — something we knew was coming for years — the NCAA simply refused to act until state legislatures began passing their own laws to allow student-athletes to make money. As a result, the NCAA had to haphazardly throw together loose guidelines in 2021, leaving universities, athletes, and brands unprepared for what was to come.
Two years later, we know the biggest issues facing college sports and the areas that Baker can address right now, NIL included. He shouldn’t wait for the next lawsuit to decide how to rein in collectives or for another high-profile scandal to define pay-for-play. Nor should he wait for congress to decide that college athletes are university employees. The writing there is on the wall. Now it’s time to figure out what in the hell that looks like. He also shouldn’t wait for the Power 5 Cartel to decide it doesn’t need the NCAA and to split off in college football.
Do I have the solutions for any of the issues above? Absolutely not. It’s also not my job. He doesn’t need to have it all figured out on day one. He does, however, need to start there, keeping the public informed along the way.
Figure Out Your Own Rules
Perhaps nothing drives college sports fans crazier than seeing the NCAA’s lack of consistency in enforcing its own rules. Its infamous IARP (Independent Accountability Resolution Process) is the perfect example. After the FBI’s investigation into college basketball, the NCAA appointed the IARP to…it seems spend literally years looking into programs involved in the scandal only for every single one of them to escape real punishment and for the IARP to immediately shut down after. Meanwhile, coaches lost their jobs, championship banners came down, and schools self-imposed postseason bans.
An even bigger concern than enforcement may be a lack of transparency, particularly when it comes to the rules surrounding NIL. Baker told Sports Illustrated that one consistent complaint he’s heard in the lead-up to his first day is “the lack of transparency, opaqueness, and the I-don’t-know-what-the-hell-is-going-on associated with NIL.”
Why, out of nowhere, did the NCAA punish Miami women’s basketball coach Kate Meier last week over helping to arrange a meeting between the Cavinder twins and Life Wallet CEO John Ruiz? Keep in mind Ruiz singlehandedly brought men’s transfer Nijel Pack to The U with an $800,000 NIL deal months ago. If that’s allowed — and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be — then the Cavinders having dinner with the guy shouldn’t be out of bounds. Right? RIGHT?
Maybe the Pack deal doesn’t quite fall under the Pay for Play umbrella. Maybe Meier shouldn’t be allowed to set potential transfers up with meetings with boosters. But the lack of consistency here is wild.
Lead in Reforming Championships
Take the College Football Playoff out of the equation — that’s its own monster, governed by its own committee.
Men’s and women’s March Madness are the next two highest-profile NCAA championships (and the men’s tournament is the NCAA’s single-biggest moneymaker). Yet both have problems, along with other championships in the so-called Olympic sports.
Expansion is on the table in the men’s tournament. Unlike some, I’m not dead against it, but it will need to be addressed before the NCAA’s contract with Turner expires in 2032. The billion-dollar-plus event is crucial to the NCAA’s very existence, and Baker will need to figure out how to maximize its revenue without watering down the product too much.
More importantly, the NCAA is still working on ensuring its women athletes enjoy an equitable experience in their NCAA Tournament. The Kaplan Report was a significant step forward. Next, it must fold the women’s tournament into the overall Basketball Performance Fund, incentivizing schools to invest in their women’s programs year-round. It also must look at its olympic championships and ensure the men’s and women’s tournaments are presented equally. There’s no reason the NCAA should embarrass itself again like it did in the 2021 Women’s College World Series. Issues like adequate facilities or swag bags are avoidable problems that can easily be prevented right away. Baker needs to conduct an overview of every NCAA-sponsored championship to make sure there are no more hiccups.
Charlie Baker has a ton on his plate as he takes over at the NCAA. With NIL rocking the college sports landscape, conference realignment kicking into overdrive, and money speaking louder than anything, Baker faces a tough road ahead. Unfortunately for him, fans aren’t a patient bunch. With what we’ve seen in the last decade-plus, they’ve earned that right. Good luck to the guy.
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