NCAA President Criticizes Players’ Movement

Arlington, Tex. — A powerful group of college leaders lined up here on Sunday to counter the perception that their institutions are not doing enough to look out for big-time athletes.

On a stage shared by star players at this year’s Final Four, the group touted the many benefits for scholarship athletes and said a recent unionization effort by Northwestern University football players had no place in big-time college sports.

“The notion of using a union-employee model to address the challenges that do exist in intercollegiate athletics is something that strikes most people as a grossly inappropriate solution to the problems,” Mark Emmert, the NCAA’s president, told a room of reporters. “It would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.”

The speakers, who included Bob Bowlsby, commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, and Nathan O. Hatch, president of Wake Forest University and chair of the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors, ticked off a list of proposals they have queued up that would give the wealthiest programs more opportunities to help their players.

Their ideas—including guaranteed scholarships, improved health coverage, and restrictions on playing and practice times—are some of the same ones that player-union representatives have floated. Such proposals have been debated for years, and have encountered repeated opposition.

But as the NCAA has faced mounting criticism—including through one high-profile case that challenges its limitations on scholarships—the desire to enact change has only intensified.

“We need to move quickly,” Mr. Emmert acknowledged on Sunday. “It’s time to act.”

He said he was “very optimistic” that some of those changes would happen, but stressed that NCAA colleges make decisions in a “ponderous democratic process” and that he himself doesn’t have a vote.

Three years ago Mr. Emmert had a much different style, having taken the job with a mandate to drive change. Months after taking office, he convened a group of college presidents and chancellors to come up with big ideas for fixing major-college sports. At the time, the NCAA was facing a backlash from a series of scandals involving players’ selling memorabilia and taking tens of thousands of dollars in impermissible payments.

The NCAA chief made fast work, helping to push through a $2,000 cost-of-attendance allowance and advocating a policy ensuring that four-year scholarships were honored.

But many Division I officials did not like his quick-draw approach, and rolled back the change to cover the full cost of attendance. The move drove a wedge between the most powerful football programs and their less-wealthy peers. Some big universities threatened to leave the association. And Mr. Emmert slowly faded from the spotlight.

This past January, at the NCAA’s annual convention, Mr. Emmert shared the stage with several college presidents and chancellors who are leading an effort to redesign the Division I power structure. As more than 800 Division I representatives debated the future of big-time sports, the NCAA’s top official offered few words.

On Sunday he bristled at the perception that his role had been diminished.

“I don’t care about the perception,” he said in an interview after the news conference. “I care about the outcome.”

The NCAA board is expected to vote in August on a plan that, among other things, would give big programs more autonomy. Some of the details still have to be worked out, said Mr. Hatch. And the plan could still be derailed.

But he and other organizers believe that they have effectively made the case.

“Most of Division I memberships see that we’re standing at a fork in the road,” Kirk Schulz, president of Kansas State University, said on Sunday. “What we’re going to put out there again is not perfect, but I believe that the vast majority of members recognize that some of these things must change and that we need to do it rapidly.

“So I’m very optimistic that we’re going to have some no votes,” he continued, “but I think at the end of the day there’s a realization that if you don’t do this, that we could be in some real trouble.”

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