Across college athletics Tuesday night, administrators sent each other emojis of champagne flutes and party hats. They set up their anonymous dates to text reporters, as if there was something new or interesting to say about the end of Mark Emmert’s failed term as NCAA president. Some of them were so happy to be rid of the guy that they preferred to save their cynicism for another day.
The abrupt announcement that Emmert will step down sometime in the next 14 months has been a long time coming. If a leader’s measure is whether his organization is better or worse for his term, there is no real debate about Emmert’s legacy: During nearly a dozen years in office, the NCAA’s position on nearly every critical issue for their existence has diminished.
This was not the result of bad luck, or even necessarily the clumsy restrictions of the NCAA’s president-driven grand structure. From name, image and likeness to applying rules to gender equality to transfers to negotiating television contracts to forming a legal strategy in cases that could be considered existential threats to the organization, the NCAA under Emmert was reactive in Instead of being proactive, it lacked the vision. to anticipate big changes and settle for small-bore solutions to disguise the fundamental problems.
As a result, Emmert leaves behind a job that few qualified people will want and an NCAA that has lost credibility with its own members, with Congress, and with a general public that rightly wonders what it’s for besides putting on a good basketball tournament. .
Regardless of the strengths or weaknesses he brought to the job, and his personal feelings about the multitude of challenges the NCAA faced, hardly anyone in college sports would argue that Emmert was successful in navigating them. If it were, Emmert wouldn’t have been ousted Tuesday by the same presidents who gave him a contract extension just a year ago.
At the same time, Emmert’s elimination alone will not be the event that turns the battleship around. In this time of uncertainty and upheaval, what happens next will tell us everything we need to know about where the presidents intend to take college sports.
The trend in recent times has been to give the job to one of their own. That makes sense when you see the job as a high-paying piñata for college presidents who are far more concerned with the profitability of their medical school or their position in academic rankings. That’s why some of the immediate speculation focused on college presidents with athletic credibility, someone like Washington State’s Kirk Schulz, who previously chaired the NCAA Board of Governors, or Baylor’s Linda Livingstone, a former college basketball player who served in Division 1. Board of Directors and Governing Board.
But if that’s what NCAA members want from their president, another Emmert who has better leadership skills and public relations experience, it’s hard to see much of a future for the organization after Congress and the courts finish dismantling the amateurism.
This might be the time to hand the reins to someone outside of college sports to come up with a more realistic and forward-looking vision of what needs to be done to keep the NCAA relevant and give that person the power to achieve it.
The NCAA needs someone who can credibly navigate Washington, DC, as it became clear over the last two years that senators and members of Congress were using Emmert as a punching bag for political points and were not going to pass a legislation that would rescue the NCAA from its own mess.
He needs someone who can win back the trust of his members, and especially conference commissioners like the SEC’s Greg Sankey and the Big Ten’s Kevin Warren, who wield the power to walk away from the NCAA tomorrow if he’s not nimble enough to satisfy. your needs.
You need someone whose answer to everything isn’t to form another committee. You need someone who can present a vision for why the NCAA is integral to managing college sports and improving the well-being of athletes in the modern world, rather than preserving an outdated concept of amateurism that doesn’t exist anywhere. another place in sports.
That will not be an easy job for anyone. The NCAA’s problems are so entrenched and broad that even the most visionary thinker and powerful personality will face an uphill battle organizing agendas and building consensus about the future. At least it will pay well.
Emmert wasn’t the only problem with college sports, but for more than a decade, he didn’t offer much in the solutions department. At every key moment of his tenure: the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal, the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit challenging the NCAA’s ownership of image rights, the FBI investigation into college basketball, the loss in the Supreme Court in NCAA v. Alston and More: Emmert was the face of failed strategy and even worse execution.
At the campus level, his departure will be celebrated in the coming days and weeks. But unless the NCAA is ready to reinvent the whole job, including its limitations on power and the direction university presidents want to take the entire organization, the next person in line isn’t going to be much more successful than Emmert.
Follow USA TODAY sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken