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Outgoing NCAA President Mark Emmert defends his record

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

College athletics has been through a decade of upheaval. There has been a revolution in athlete compensation, health and safety, gender equity and more. Through all of that, Mark Emmert has been president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the NCAA. Now he's stepping down, and he joins us for an exit interview. Mark Emmert, thanks for being here.

MARK EMMERT: Oh, my pleasure. Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: The New York Times referred to you as the persistently embattled president of the NCAA. And that's actually one of the kinder phrases I've seen. Would you agree with that characterization?

EMMERT: (Laughter) Well, look, it's a position that places someone right in the middle of all of those debates and discussions you were just outlining in the lead-in. And so it is something that attracts a lot of passion. And sports produces plenty of passion. And so it often gets aimed in my direction.

SHAPIRO: And so when you hear the criticism from the conference commissioners, the coaches, the athletic directors, the sports reporters, what do you think it is that they get wrong about the nature of your job? What do you think they misunderstand?

EMMERT: Well, first of all, the NCAA is a collection of 1,100 colleges and universities. And it's those schools, and only those schools, that make the rules and set the agenda for the association, that the president, whoever the president is, doesn't have the authority to create new rules or to pass judgment on any one school or...

SHAPIRO: But you do have a voice. You do have a bully pulpit. Do you think that you missed an opportunity to use your voice to influence policies on some of these issues like athlete compensation or health and safety?

EMMERT: Well, I certainly have been, I think, the loudest and clearest voice on health and safety. And I've done more around health and safety than most anyone has done in college sports. So I'm incredibly proud of what we did, you know, in that arena. When it comes to athletic compensation, what we've seen over my 12 years is a constant improvement in the conditions and support of athletes, and I'm equally proud of that. The biggest issue today is, of course, the name, image and likeness - the so-called NIL rules. And I've been an advocate for moving forward on NIL for a number of years now. And so I feel pretty good about the role that I've played in all that.

SHAPIRO: I - you say you've been an advocate for moving forward on NIL, but you fought hard against giving student athletes financial benefits. And the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling against you in 2021. The association continues to fight legal battles. You've called for Congress to intervene. That's led nowhere. When you look at this history and this set of facts, it looks like from the Supreme Court on down, these are battles that the NCAA has fought and lost.

EMMERT: Well, the notion of whether or not student athletes should be compensated as employees or whether they should be student athletes participating in sports as students and providing some level of compensation where it makes sense I think is critically important. And I'm really quite supportive of that. The route forward is in fact going to necessitate working through Congress because we have a situation today where there's over 30 different state laws that provide different scenarios around how you can run name, image and likeness programs, for example. And you can't have that kind of variation across states and have national policy. So the need to bring Congress in isn't driven just by failures of any one group. It's because of the actions that are going on around the country.

SHAPIRO: To be clear, Congress has shown no movement on this. But I do want to move on. You know, one critique of your tenure has been an accusation that you're not in touch with the players who make up the NCAA. Could you tell us about an interaction or conversation you had with a student athlete that changed your mind about something? Tell us a story.

EMMERT: Well, first of all, especially prior to COVID, I probably met with - I don't know - thousands and thousands of athletes. And I was a champion for bringing athletes onto the various committees and governance boards and giving them not just a voice but votes in each of those forms.

SHAPIRO: Is there a specific story you can tell us, a specific interaction or conversation you had with a with a student athlete? I'd love to hear a story.

EMMERT: Oh, sure. So one of the most impressive groups of people we work with, I work with are the student athlete advisory committees. And there's a young woman from one of those committees who has been a really vocal advocate around mental health concerns and issues. And with her, I was able to make sure that the constitution includes, for the first time, specific language around the role of promoting mental health of our athletes.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about gender equity. The NCAA was effectively publicly shamed into addressing the gap between men's and women's basketball, and this was not that long ago. It was just 2021. In hindsight, do you wish you'd done more sooner to address the disparities?

EMMERT: Well, yes, absolutely. I think that the issues of gender equity in college sports have been and remain of great concern to everyone involved in sports and society at large. The questions about the nature of the tournaments have been addressed very successfully since then. I'm really pleased with where we are at this point. But the need to be more aggressive about those issues, not just at the championship level but also on campuses, I think, has got to remain paramount in front of everybody.

SHAPIRO: You say that after 12 years of leading the NCAA. You had every opportunity to make that paramount.

EMMERT: Well, and we did, in fact, in many cases. So, for example, now there are more women participating in national championships than men. There's more women athletes playing today than ever before. But the way that gender equity plays out on the campuses is really the role and responsibility of individual schools and not the association per se. What the association runs are those championships. And we made consistent and, I think, successful progress, but we certainly didn't get it all right.

SHAPIRO: On issue after issue, you describe progress that the NCAA has made. And I can't help but look at the history and wonder whether the organization was dragged into making that progress rather than leading the way.

EMMERT: Well, the association - again, it's important for everyone to understand - is a representative body. It's a organization that brings together all of the schools to make decisions collectively and to establish the rules and deploy resources as they want to.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like you're downplaying its power.

EMMERT: No, not at all. And as such, it has an opportunity to address any of those issues. But it is in many ways a reactive body like most representative enterprises are.

SHAPIRO: Sports Illustrated called this a borderline impossible job. As former Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker prepares to take the reins, what do you think he's going to need to do to succeed?

EMMERT: He's going to need to make sure that he's listening to all of the key constituents that are part of the NCAA but most importantly, the athletes. He's also going to have to persuade a Congress, if it's possible, that there are rules that the NCAA or any body can't perform without their help and their assistance. Changes in some of the legal structure need to be made if they're going to continue to operate in anything like the fashion they do now. And he's got, again, really good skills for doing just that.

SHAPIRO: That's Mark Emmert, the outgoing president of the NCAA. Thank you so much.

EMMERT: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.