At NCAA’s Annual Convention, a Reduced Role for Its President

San Diego — Officially, it’s still his show. But Mark Emmert, the NCAA’s president, stayed in the background on Thursday as his association wrestled with its most significant shift in a generation.

Although NCAA officials said otherwise, it suggested to some people that he had ceded the spotlight after repeatedly failing to run things his way.

When he became president, in the fall of 2010, Mr. Emmert organized a summit of campus leaders to identify the biggest problems in college athletics. Months later the Division I Board of Directors approved a sweeping set of changes, including a $2,000 stipend allowance for players at the NCAA’s highest rung.

His quick draw—The Chronicle called him the “NCAA’s New Hammer” in a January 2012 profile—won him praise among fellow college leaders but alienated many of those below him. Among the most vocal critics were athletic directors, who said they were being largely excluded from conversations.

Mr. Emmert, a swift decision maker who bristles at criticism, seemed undeterred. “If we break a little china along the way, so be it,” he told me at the time.

He broke a lot of china. He and the board clearly misread the membership on the stipend, which Division I institutions voted to roll back almost immediately. Then came the Miami mess and an exodus of enforcement officials that has yet to slow. (LuAnn Humphrey, the longtime head of basketball enforcement, has just stepped down.)

At least this week, anyway, Mr. Emmert—who is known internally as the “king of the press conference”—has dialed back his public profile.

On Thursday he sat at the end of a long table as a group of NCAA board members held court over a roomful of athletics officials. (On the TV monitors, Mr. Emmert could be seen sitting literally in the shadow of a college president.) During the three-hour meeting, the NCAA’s boss opened his mouth just once.

Later he turned his annual “state of the association” address—in which he has traditionally demonstrated his flair for the unscripted, dramatic speech—into a dull question-and-answer session with several college chiefs.

For much of that session, and in a news conference that followed, he sat quietly and listened. At least twice, a cameraman had to ask him to speak into the microphone.

After the news conference, I asked an NCAA spokeswoman whether I was reading too much into Mr. Emmert’s lower profile. She suggested that I was, emphasizing that it’s the job of college leaders—not the NCAA president—to determine how they want their association run.

But seeing Mr. Emmert sitting to the side still felt strange. During such a crucial moment, it seemed, the person who had helped the NCAA get into its current predicament should be the one leading the way out of it.

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