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Mark Emmert: NCAA Athletes Need Respect, Not Salaries

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, we speak with a man who is making a church home for a group that hasn't always felt welcome there. Here's a hint: proper church attire may include leather, jeans and tattoos, and don't forget the helmet. We'll have that conversation in Faith Matters, which is just ahead. But first, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or the NCAA, recently announced major rules changes for college sports, touching everything from academics to money.

The organization has come under heavy fire lately for cheating scandals across the country and for rules that some believe unfairly restrict athletes. We recently spoke with Brit Kirwan, the co-chair of The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. That's a watchdog group. He was highly critical of the way the NCAA was policing its member colleges and universities. A few days after speaking with us, he met with leaders of the NCAA about those concerns.

That group included our next guest, NCAA President Mark Emmert. And he's with us now from Austin, Texas. Mr. Emmert, thank you so much for being with us.

MARK EMMERT: Oh, it's a great pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: Do you - how do you describe, or how do you think of the rules changes that were just announced? Do you consider this a major overhaul, or do you consider it just a tweak, a refinement?

EMMERT: Well, it is, I think, unequivocally a major shift. But it's just the beginning of a series of changes that we're in the middle of doing and need to drive through over the course of this school year. And I'm very excited about the support that the university presidents have given to these changes, and I think it's going to make a very big difference in the lives of our student-athletes.

MARTIN: Let me just describe some of the changes, and you can jump in if you don't think I'm hitting the most important ones. First of all, the conferences can vote to add $2,000 in the full cost of attendance money to scholarship offers. As most people who have had a college scholarship know, scholarships generally only include tuition, you know, room and board, and it doesn't include things like maybe going out to eat or...

EMMERT: Travel costs...

MARTIN: ...travel costs, and things of that sort...

EMMERT: ...and laundry (unintelligible).

MARTIN: ...and, you know, incidentals. Right. Individual schools can choose to award multi-year scholarships. Scholarships may not be revoked based on athletic performance. Schools that fail to meet the academic progress rate cutline will be ineligible for post-season play, including bowl games. And eligibility requirements increased from a 2.0 GPA to a 2.3 for incoming freshman, a 2.5 for junior college transfers. And there are others. Of those, the one that affects the $2,000 in kind of additional scholarship money is the one that's getting the most attention. Do you think that's the most important?

EMMERT: Well, actually I don't. I think, easily, the most important changes are those in academic requirements. But, you know, the $2,000 issue is one that I felt very strongly about, and it was highly supported by our presidents because it does recognize that the full cost of going to school is, as you point out, greater than just tuition fees, books and supplies, room and board. And the current model's been in place for more than 40 years, and it was time that we made an adjustment to it.

MARTIN: Let's talk about both those issues separately, but let's talk about the money piece first. And, of course, you know, the big elephant in the room is this whole question of the billions of dollars that college sports generates, and specifically men's college football and men's college basketball. And you've said that the idea of paying student athletes for their services, because their - it's their physical labor that contributes to those results, you're saying that's off the table, that it simply is not supported by anyone in college administration.

EMMERT: No, it's absolutely right. And one of the most fundamental principles of intercollegiate athletics is that these are students who happen to be athletes, not the other way around. And so when people talk about moving toward a pay-for-play model of turning students into professionals and employees of the university, we have that system in the United States. It's the NFL. It's the NBA. It's professional baseball. And that's all well and good, but the unique American tradition is to have athletics combine with universities and colleges. We're the only nation that does it.

And having people - the students who are participating and representing their school is one of the most fundamental notions behind what college sport is all about. And what most people don't realize is that student-athletes are, in fact, better students than the student bodies overall that their - of their universities. And virtually every university in America right now with division one sports, the athletes have higher graduation rates than the rest of the student body. And that's true whether they're men or women, regardless of race.

But there's this mythology out there that, you know, student athletes are dumb jocks. They don't go to class. They don't participate in the academic world, when, in fact, they do. Now, that doesn't mean they don't have other serious demands on their time. And one of the problems is that student athletes now put in, you know, 30 to 40 hours a week, and in some cases, they do it nine and even 12 months out of the year. The increase in the size of our scholarship funds, the $2,000 we were talking about, is at least, in part, a recognition that it is much harder for student athletes to have a part-time job.

They do, in fact, have all the miscellaneous expenses that a regular student has. And so we're trying to make sure that we address some of those concerns you're bringing up.

MARTIN: If you just tuned in, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're speaking with Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA. They just announced some major changes to some of the roles governing the relationships between colleges and universities and their student-athletes. What about the argument that these more stringent academic requirements really only put more pressure on the athletes, and they don't really do anything to require these institutions to support them more academically?

EMMERT: Yeah, what they do do though is they shift, also, the responsibility to the athletic departments and to the coaches to make sure that students are keeping up with and have time for their academic work. There's not a coach in the country who wants to say to his athletic director or his president or her president that we qualified on the court or on the field this year, but we can't go to a post-season tournament or a bowl game because our grades aren't good enough. And so part of the shift is saying, look, if a team does not meet its academic eligibility responsibilities, it can't go to our tournaments, it can't go to post-season play, that's going to change the dynamic in the locker room pretty significantly, because that's everybody's goal: to get to go to the NCAA tournament, to get to go to a bowl game.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things that the Knight Commission recommended, though, is limiting post-season play. The argument is if, really, the experience is about being a college student and the student-athlete experience, why not limit post-season play. What does that really add to the academic experience?

EMMERT: Oh, I think the Knight Commission's dead wrong on that. If you talk to any student-athlete, even one in high school or middle school, and say: What do you want to do as an athlete? They'll say, well, I want to go to the Final Four. Well, I want to go to a bowl game. Well - you know, the aspiration of playing in post-season play is one of the most important elements and opportunities for a young man or young woman who's an athlete. And so...

MARTIN: Really? Really? Why? I mean, do there have to be that many bowl games?

EMMERT: Well, the bowl games, of course, are - I guess we have 35 of them. That means that 70 teams get to participate. I've never talked to a student athlete walking off a football field who said, gee, I wish I didn't get to go to that bowl. It is something that every college football player wants. Every woman's field hockey player wants to go play in the NCAA tournament. Every track runner wants to go to the nationals and run in a track meet. And it's, in large part, the biggest reward they get as an athlete - not as a student, but as an athlete. One of the funnest things for them is to get to go and do those activities. It's a pinnacle of their athletic career.

MARTIN: There's so many things that we could talk about, and we do appreciate your taking the time and - but before we let you go, I do have to ask you about this question of injuries to athletes. As you know, you know, a hard hit can change someone's entire life. And Congressman Bobby Rush from Illinois recently had some harsh words about the NCAA. I'm sure you've heard this. He reportedly compared the NCAA to the mafia saying, quote, "I think they're one of the most vicious, most ruthless organizations ever created by mankind." He was specifically talking about the fact that if a player gets hurt on the field, that sometimes they are left to address the implications of that on their own, that schools and some institutions have actually brought lawsuits to keep from footing those bills.

And his argument is that that's actually, you know, as big of a problem as this whole question of additional scholarship money or giving kids enough money to kind of get through school comfortably.

You know, aside from the rhetoric, which I'm sure you don't appreciate, what about the whole issue of athletic injuries? Are colleges and universities being fair to those student athletes if they're injured?

EMMERT: Sure. Well, first, let me address the rhetoric just a little bit. You know, the NCAA provides $2 billion - that's with a B - $2 billion of direct and indirect financial support to student athletes across 400,000 different student athletes. We provide more financial support for students than any organization other than the federal government, and if that's a definition of the mafia, that's a pretty strange definition in my book.

But the fact is that we worry deeply about student welfare and their physical safety. It's one of the reasons the NCAA was created over 100 years ago, and so we have spent a lot of time and continue to spend a lot of time on the safety of players, minimizing the impacts that occur on them while they play their sports, while they're training. I think we do, in collegiate athletics, the best job of that at any level of athletics.

We have a variety of insurance programs for student athletes who get injured, both at the NCAA level and at the institutional level. We require that all student athletes are covered by an insurance program when they're playing in our sports and...

MARTIN: You don't think it's a problem?

EMMERT: I think it's an issue that we always have to be attentive to, but I think the congressman's portrayal of it is grossly inaccurate.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, what is your sort of overall assessment of the way student athletes are treated in general? Do you have an overarching issue that you wish you could address if you had the power to do it on your own?

EMMERT: Yes. Mine wouldn't be about money as much as it would be about the lives of our student athletes. If I could wave a wand, I would encourage the student athletes and all of the people involved in sports to strike a better balance between the time they spend on their sports and the other opportunities that are available to them in their university and college lives.

They spend, as we noted, 30 to 40 hours a week working on their sports. The vast majority of that time, or at least a significant portion of it, is work that they do voluntarily, because these are very competitive young men and women. They want to be the best athletes they can and in the process they wind up not taking advantage of all the other things that are available at a great university that you and I probably had a chance to take part in.

And I wish they would see that over the long run, of course, having a very balanced life is one that really makes great sense. And so if I could wave a wand, I'd say, great, play your sport, be competitive, go to that bowl game, go the tournament, but don't forget to enjoy the social life and the academic opportunities that are afforded you as well.

MARTIN: Mark Emmert is the president of the NCAA. He joined us from Austin, Texas. President Emmert, thank you so much for speaking with us.

EMMERT: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.