From a club suite in the Honda Center as part of his whirlwind scheduled during the NCAA basketball tournament, NCAA President Mark Emmert watched the Oklahoma-Oregon basketball game on Saturday. He's keeping an eye on other issues, too — one that involved a phone call from North Carolina's governor.
Gov. Pat McCrory's opposition to anti-discrimination legislation in North Carolina that protects people based their on sexual orientation and gender identity could affect NCAA events scheduled to be held in the state. With that issue began USA TODAY Sports’ Q&A session, lightly edited for clarity.
USA TODAY SPORTS: We figured out that the NCAA is currently scheduled to hold at least 20 championship events there, which doesn’t include prospect of teams getting home games in championships based on seeding like in women’s basketball and in baseball. There also are “religious freedom” bills moving around in Georgia and Missouri. What’s your position on this, especially relative to championships?
EMMERT: So the issue of creating inclusive environments and making sure that all of the people that are involved in the athletic event is one of the most fundamental bedrock issues for higher education. This isn’t a sports issue. It’s a social justice issue and for our member universities. This is a very, very important issue. So it’s one that everybody in the membership is tracking very closely. We’ve made clear to all involved — in fact, I talked to the governor of North Carolina (Friday) — that we’re going to be monitoring the developments that go on there. That we make site selection decisions, wherever we are, one of the criterion that’s considered in all of those decisions has to be the kind of experience the student-athletes, fan base, all those attending are going to have. We’re not doing anything more than that at this moment.
USA TODAY SPORTS: So you’re not prepared to say, "We’re pulling out?"
EMMERT: “That’s correct. We’re not doing that not. But those decisions will be made by the individual sports committees and the individual sport committees will pay very close attention to it as we move forward. And as you point out it’s an issue in a number of places around the country. It was obviously a big one in Indiana last year. Indiana is somewhat different for us because that’s also our home base. That’s where all of our employees live and work. We were particularly involved there. But this was something we’re very concerned about.’’
USA TODAY SPORTS: What specifically did you tell the governor and why did you call (Friday)?
EMMERT: He called me and he wanted to simply explain their views and I explained ours as well. Made sure he understood that we were in a watch-and-monitor mode, but that again whether it’s North Carolina or any other state that the ability to hold championships and events requires that we be able to do so in a way that our fan base and athletes aren’t going to be discriminated against regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. And he understands that and I think I understand their view.
USA TODAY SPORTS: What did he tell you? Why did he call?
EMMERT: He wanted to make sure that I understood what they were trying to do and not trying to do. It was a very amicable conversation in that sense. You have to ask him what his views are. I shouldn’t say.
USA TODAY SPORTS: What type of concrete proposals, if any, have been brought forward concerning time demands on athletes in the wake of the discussions around this topic at the convention?
EMMERT: So there’s been a lot work going on there, including surveying of the member universities and more information from students themselves, a lot of meetings at the conference level across the board in Division I are going on. All of the spring meetings of the conferences, there will be a lot of debate and discussion about this.
The fundamental notion is that everybody is gravitating toward is trying to find ways to provide real full days off for students. This was discussed at the convention, trying to find blocks in the day that are uninterrupted so that students can get good rest and recovery and down time. And then thirdly, trying to find some consecutive blocks of time when our students can take better advantage of education, and they can find a way to do an internship or find a way to study aboard, find a way to take fuller advantage of programs that campuses offer. That’s what everybody wants. The challenges are that there are probably going to have to be sport specific rules because what works in track and field doesn’t work in basketball, etc.
But there’s good consensus around the goals of trying to reduce time demands and the general ways of doing it. I’m really supportive about that. I think the time demands right now are way too high on students. Every time I’m on campus — and I go to a lot of campuses, I always meet with all the students — consistently the one theme across the board across schools is they’d like more time to be students. Very much so.
“In many cases, they have been playing 12 months out of the year every waking spare moment outside of school since they were 12, right? They come to college with that sort of expectation and you can’t be a successful Division I athlete in any sport without being really competitive and a lot of them when you say, ‘Look, we want to keep you away from your sport for a couple of weeks,’ some of them think that sounds great, and some of them think that sounds horrible. It depends on the student and the sport. But they all would like to have more time to relax, they’d like to have more time to be with their friends, they’d like to have a little more time to do schoolwork. They’d like to have more time, recognizing that the vast majority aren’t going to be professional athletes, to get ready for a career after sports.
The Division I student-athlete committee is doing a great job pulling together student opinions. There’s a really good survey being incorporated into the debate. So I’m optimistic we’re going ot find some good solutions. But it’s not as simple as any of us would like it to be.
USA TODAY SPORTS: What is the NCAA’s plan concerning approaching the Supreme Court in the O’Bannon case? Will it make an appeal effort of its own, or will it just respond to the O’Bannon plaintiffs’ effort to have the case heard by the Court? And either way, why?
EMMERT: First of all, the O’Bannon ruling came out of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and, as you know, had some things we were very pleased with and some things that we utterly disagree with. The notion that the appeals panel put forward that whatever benefits are provided student-athletes have to be in the context of education, they have to be tethered to higher education, is exactly what our view is. And so we completely agree with that component. The argument that the rules of the association are anti-trust violations, not surprisingly we disagree with, as to several other (court) circuits that have said, ‘No, they’re not in violation of anti-trust laws’ and we have the Ninth Circuit that says, ‘They are.’ So it’d be desirable to get that resolved at the Supreme Court or some other fashion. We’re evaluating exactly the best way to proceed. We weren’t surprised by the plaintiffs’ petition. And what we do in the coming weeks we’ll determine as we get through this event. We’re kind of occupied with basketball right now.
USA TODAY SPORTS: Documents in the “Alston” litigation that were unsealed this week indicate that the plaintiffs in one part of the case will be seeking at least $240 million in damages based on the difference between the value of a grant-in-aid and a cost-of-attendance based scholarship. This amount could then be tripled. What is his level of concern about this case, given the huge financial stakes?
EMMERT: A number of these cases have very, very significant financial implications to them were they to be successful. I’m not going to comment about that particular cases because it’s still ongoing, as you know. But we take all of these things seriously. They’re important discussions and debates for the country about what they want or don’t want for collegiate athletics. And we’ll deal with the plaintiffs in that case as the case moves forward.
USA TODAY SPORTS: Is it a healthy discussion, regardless of the cases and then what people are seeking and disputing, is it a healthy discussion?
EMMERT: Having this debate and discussion via lawsuits is, of course, challenging in many ways. It means it’s hard to have a conversation, even you and I, because we have all of these lawsuits over here. But I think it is healthy for society, for the country, to stop and say, ‘What do we want college sports to be? Do we want this to be about students who are playing games they love, some tiny portion of whom are going to play professionally but the vast majority percent of whom are not? Or do we want them to be professional athletes who are playing as employees of the university? Which of those two models do we want as a country? I obviously have a strong view on it. And we believe that most people feel the same and in virtually every case the courts have agreed with our view that this is about student-athletes playing other student-athletes, not employees playing employees. But it’s perfectly appropriate and understandable that the world wants to have that debate and discussion.
USA TODAY SPORTS: How long do you intend to serve in this capacity? It seemed like about a year ago there was speculation you might be looking for something else.
EMMERT: Well, I don’t know who was speculating, but it wasn’t me. I was very pleased and honored that the board offered to extend my contract. So I’ve got a lot of years of runway in front of me right now. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve made some great progress. I’m proud of what’s happened the past handful of years. I think it’s unequivocally a better time to be a student-athlete today than it was five, 10 years ago. And I feel very good about that.
The success of college athletics has never been greater in terms of graduation rates, in terms of number of participants, in terms of the college scholarship support students are getting. So that’s all good. But there are still a lot of issues out there that we need to address. We need to find ways for students to be even more successful academically. We need to understand that this is about their education. It’s a lot more to just moving to professional sport because so few of them will. And there again, because of mostly time demands, getting as much opportunity as I’d personally like to see. We’ve got to work on that.
I think there’s some issues of fairness that we need to keep pushing away on and make sure students are getting a really good break out of this process and they get exactly what they want out of this, so they can be successful on all elements of college life. Got a lot of work to do to continue to make progress with all the health and wellness issues.
I’m pleased with what we’ve been able to do on concussions and a number of other areas around health and policies that promote well-being. But we still have to understand better areas around mental health. Got to continue our work on the concussion studies so we’ve got the science advanced on what’s really going on there and act accordingly. So there’s a lot of work to be done, and I’m excited to be part of it.
USA TODAY SPORTS: Any last item you’d like to mention?
EMMERT: We’re making some really good progress with our concerns about daily fantasy sports. So, as you remember, last year when the deluge of advertising came out for both FanDuel and DraftKings, we, myself and the 10 commissioners from the FBS conferences asked them to get out of the college space. We think that that’s inappropriate with student athletes.
I subsequently met with the leaders of those two companies and we’ve been working hard to persuade them that college sport shouldn’t be a place where they operate. You’ve probably been following the debate on a state-by-state basis. Individual states are starting to explore whether or not to regulate these games.
Whether it’s gambling or not gambling, that’s somebody else’s debate. Whether it’s appropriate for professional sport or not, that’s somebody else’s debate. We feel pretty strong that it’s not appropriate for college sports.
So having the states regulate it during that process, we’re asking the states to ban those games for student-athletes, college sports, high school sports, Little League, any of that space where students are playing the games. We’re having some good success with that. Indiana just passed a law that regulates the games so that they can be played for professional sports but carve out of that regulation college sports and youth sports.
There’s bills moving forward in New York and Massachusetts and California and Alabama, all of which have similar carve outs and we’ve been having good conversations with the daily fantasy sports people too. I’m optimistic we’re going to make some headway there.