Amid one of the NCAA's biggest scandals of all time and in the days before the controversial BCS National Championship on Jan. 9, The Huffington Post caught up with NCAA President Mark Emmert. The 59-year-old Emmert, who took over in April 2010, is an avid sports fan who helped orchestrate the expanded and highly successful 68-team format for March Madness. In an exclusive interview, he discussed his openness to expanding BCS into a Plus-One format, his stance on the Penn State sex abuse scandal, and why he will never consider paying student athletes.
What has been the biggest difference between being a school president and the head of the NCAA?
Probably the first biggest difference -- and the one that people are often surprised about -- is that the job as head of the NCAA is much more narrowly defined. When you're running a great big research university, you have responsibilities that run the gamut from the police department to the hospitals to the residence halls to the research facilities to faculty. At Washington, I had 37, 38,000 employees. At the NCAA I've got 450, and I worry about collegiate athletics and that's it. And that's fun; I'm enjoying that a lot, to be able to focus my attention on the problems of one sector, and working with people on just that arena has been a nice, pleasant change.
What is the biggest challenge right now for the NCAA?
The biggest challenges are wrestling with the need for pretty dramatic change in a structure that is inherently resistant to change. There is often confusion about this. People either don't know or have forgotten that this is a voluntary association of 1,100 colleges and universities so it's big and complex and covers the gamut of American higher education. We run it by consensus and by mutual agreement, so it's not in any fashion like the NBA or NFL or most any other organizations where there is kind of direct control. My son often describes my job as being the "Secretary General of the United Nations for Sport."
There is a need for big change and some serious problems that still remain. We are making some excellent headway and the world hasn't noted that headway yet. Every time we've been making headway, the metaphor I keep using is that I'm running down a road in the right direction, but about every 100 yards or so a grenade goes off. We are making positive progress in the midst of a public who has a great love for the games but not confidence in how they're run.
What is a fair penalty and your overall assessment of the Penn State sex abuse scandal?
Well, it'd be premature to talk about penalties because we are in the earliest stages of inquiry. If we accept the allegations -- and that's a big leap -- but if you do accept them, the biggest concern that I and most people would have is asking the question: "Who was in charge of this program and who was ultimately responsible? Was this a culture that saw itself as above and beyond the authority of the university and even as a broader society?"
My deepest concern about college sports is that the programs and the people in them may not always be held to the same standards as civil society. There's no reason in the world that we should allow a student athlete, administrator or anyone involved in an athletic program to behave in ways that are inconsistent with what our expectations of everyone else are. The standards of behavior need to be the same. The fact is that getting to participate in sports is a privilege; it's an honor to represent an institution. It's not to much to ask that you play by the rules and behave like a normal citizen.
What does this then say about the overall integrity of college sports, as they are right now?
I don't know whether the integrity now is better or worse [than the past]. I just know that it's unacceptable today. We're in a curious moment where people are cynical about most everything institutional; they're cynical about politics, the media and business. And they're cynical about athletics. So there's a very special need for us to go above and beyond expectations and to demonstrate that these games are very special and different than professional athletics. [Student athletes] are doing it because they want to be a part of something bigger, and that's the case for 99.5 percent of our student athletes, but that very small portion who approach it in a very cynical fashion and who are willing to violate the rules are the ones whose stories get told the most. That's tainted the [NCAA's] incredibly positive news all year long. This year we set a wonderful record for academic success in terms of graduation rates, but no one pays attention to that because it's been overshadowed by these pretty stunning scandals.
Will there ever be a scenario where student-athletes get paid or receive more stipend money than they currently do?
As long as I have anything to say about it, they're never going to get paid as employees. The minute you convert students to employees it completely changes what college athletics is all about. We passed a rule that allowed for a change in the scholarship model to cover more of the full cost of what it really costs to go to school. I'm very supportive of providing students with a scholarship that covers their real and genuine cost of being a student. (Note: The rule was objected by at least 125 schools and is currently not in effect.)
I'm incredibly opposed to paying them salary beyond that because then they are in fact employees, and then you might as well cease having them be students. If this is solely about having athletes entertain us in the name of a university, then sub-contract them out to the local NBA franchise, but that's not what the collegiate athletic tradition has been about. It's about students who happen to play sports on behalf of their university. It's a uniquely American tradition, but it is entirely about students. The beauty of the Heisman this year is that [Robert Griffin III] is a great student and a wonderful representative of his university. He's going to go on and have a great career, probably as a professional athlete, but if not, he'll become a great lawyer, too. That's what this is all about, and as soon as you convert them into employees, and as soon as you start debating how much you're going to pay the quarterback versus the kid sitting on the bench, as soon as they get unionized and go on strike, and the universities lock them out, I mean it sounds pretty familiar; we went through that. It's called the NBA, NFL and MLB. I love that stuff but it has nothing to do with college sports.
Is this BCS a fair representation this season of what a playoff would produce, and further, did Oklahoma State not only get unlucky, but did it get robbed?
This is the same debate that's been going on for 13-14 years. Prior to the BCS, which most people can barely remember, [teams] 1-2 almost never played each other and if they did, it was by accident. So the BCS has been successful in bringing together the teams that are generally considered No. 1 and No. 2, and that's been a good thing. I think there will be a lot of good discussion in the spring about whether or not that model should be changed. ... I don't think that there's a way to do a 16-team playoff that doesn't dramatically impact student athletes and stretch out the seasons far too long, or doesn't completely blow up the bowl system. Because we like those bowls; students like playing in them ... it's a part of American culture that people like.
So, if you were to erase it and start all over again and say it was 50 years ago, would you create this model? Probably not. But it has a lot of pieces in it that we all value. We love the Rose Bowl and nobody wants to throw that away. I could easily see a movement toward the Plus-One that everyone is talking about. This year it would have produced something like No. 1 LSU playing No. 4 Stanford, and No. 2 playing No. 3, and the winners playing in a championship. There would still be a big debate, "well, did No. 5 get cheated?" But at least you'd have something that looked like a Final Four model. But there will always be debate about it. Football is different than basketball; it takes a lot more time and takes a lot more physically out of kids. For right now, the BCS is going to create a very exciting game, and that's what we all want to see.
We saw what Virginia Commonwealth did last season coming out of the extended format. Right now, do you see the 68-team format sticking or will it expand further?
I think we're going to stick with it for a while and see what it brings. This last year, as you point out, was pretty spectacular. When you see someone go from the First Four to the Final Four -- with a team that many critics said shouldn't have even been in there in the first place -- it suggests you've got a lot of parity and a lot of competitive equity on the floor that's really fun. We all love that. There is something distinctly American about those David and Goliath kind of stories that we all appreciate; that format works really, really well. Before you mess with it, you want to make sure you know what you're doing, because I think it's the best sporting event in the country.
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