NEW YORK — NCAA president Mark Emmert hopes lessons learned through navigating the pandemic will lead college sports leaders to be more open to future reform and to prioritize opportunities for athletes when it comes time to cut costs.
In a 25-minute interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Emmert said the NCAA and its member schools have shown an uncommon ability to be nimble and responsive in addressing issues of eligibility, scheduling, recruiting, transfers and conducting championship events.
“We’ve done a whole array of things, many of which member schools in the past have said, ‘No, no, no, we can’t do that. That’s not right.’ Well, we’re doing it. And the sporting world hasn’t collapsed,” Emmert told AP. “And so can we as we move forward, say, well, why can’t we continue to do that? Why can’t we continue to provide more flexibility? Why can’t we continue to think more creatively about scheduling models and about the way we run a variety of elements of the associations?’
He added: “I’m hoping that that those lessons aren’t lost.”
It has been a grim 2020 for college sports just the same. Between the cancellation of last season’s lucrative NCAA basketball tournaments and the loss of football ticket revenue because of limited attendance, athletic departments big and small have been forced to make steep cuts.
Ohio State, for example, has made plans to lose more than $100 million, cutting wages and jobs, but not teams. Other schools plan to eliminate sports, including Iowa and Stanford, which plans to drop 11 programs from one of the largest athletic departments in the country.
At lower levels, Furman discontinued its baseball team and Akron got rid of cross-country. Dozens of programs have been cut as budgets have been slashed.
“And I know everybody’s got difficult financial decisions to make. We had to make a lot inside the national office. But trying to support these students in as many ways as we possibly can has really been the hallmark of all of this,” Emmert said. “Because when you look at how the schools have stepped up with their health and safety support for poor students, it’s been pretty remarkable. It’s been extensive. It’s been hard, but it’s been really remarkable. And we need to say, ‘OK, if we can do that, why can’t we do these other things?'”
South Carolina last month fired football coach Will Muschamp at a cost of about $12 million to buy out the remainder of his contract. That move came after the athletic department implemented furloughs to address an expected $50 million in lost revenue. There is also speculation about the future of Texas football coach Tom Herman, whose buyout with his staff would be more than $20 million.
“The pandemic and the financial struggles that have come with that, even at very, very well-financed schools makes those choices clearer and a little more stark,” Emmert said of the large buyouts that have become common in major college football. “And I hope that causes folks to think longer and harder about those kind of allocation decisions. And that’s not to be critical of South Carolina or Texas or anybody else. That’s just to say that we need to be clear among ourselves as to why we’re engaged in this activity and what we are trying to accomplish collectively and individual institutions.”
Emmert spoke to the AP after participating in the Sports Business Journal’s annual Intercollegiate Athletics Forum. The event is being conducted virtually.
Recently, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an advocacy group, proposed removing the highest level of Division I football, known as the Bowl Subdivision, from the NCAA structure. It recommended the creation of the National College Football Association, an independent body to oversee FBS.
Major college football, the commission concluded, has created inequities across all NCAA sports and hinder the association’s ability to govern equitably.
Emmert called the recommendation “exactly the wrong thing to do.” He told AP he agrees football has “an outsized influence” over college sports.
“But that’s a reflection of the popularity of that particular sport,” he said. “And changing the organizational structure of football won’t modify that demand in any fashion.
“So when there’s a proposal to just say, well, let’s change the organization of football, move it away from all the rest of sports, somehow that will change the decision-making around football. I think it’s very unlikely to happen that way. And I think it’s very likely to have the opposite effect.”