Four quick thoughts on Charlie Baker, the next NCAA President
Good afternoon, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
More importantly, thanks for your patience this week, as I was recovering from a nasty case of the flu. I'm not ready to suit up for churchball or anything yet, but I've recovered enough to talk on the phone without hacking up a lung, so I'm probably healthy enough to write.
Which is good, because this beat doesn't really let you stay sick for very long. This morning, the NCAA announced they've selected who will replace Mark Emmert as the President of the NCAA: Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.
The initial response I saw from fans was that of surprise. After all, previous NCAA presidents came from the ranks of either athletic department or university administration. Not only is Baker a politician, but he's never worked in college athletics at all. He did (briefly) play basketball at Harvard, and his wife and children were college athletes, but Baker's non-political experience is mostly around the health care industry or in government.
I was a little surprised to hear his name, specifically, but not surprised that the NCAA would select a political figure. In 2023, this job is an explicitly political gig. Part of that is simply because leading over so many different institutions requires similar coalition-building skills that a politician might need, and part of that is because the direction of the NCAA is now, at least in part, in the hands of lawmakers.
The NCAA wants help from Washington, D.C. to solve not just their NIL problems, but their antitrust problems, generally. There's not much power they have to enforce many of their rules without assistance from lawmakers.
It's obviously very early....Baker won't even officially start the gig until March 2023. But here are a few key thoughts and questions I have about this particular selection, and where the NCAA goes from here:
What does bipartisan outreach look like in 2023?
It isn't easy to be elected as a Republican in deep-blue Massachusetts, let alone re-elected, but Baker pulled it off. In October, polls showed him as the most popular governor in America. That's unquestionably part of his appeal to the NCAA. Here's a guy that knows how to build consensus and get along with others, right?
Running as a "socially progressive, fiscal bulwark against the excesses of liberalism" type can still be a winning strategy for winning statewide office in New England. Gov. Phil Scott (R) has done it in Vermont, Mitt Romney did it in Massachusetts, and Angus King did it in Maine, among others. It's not an easy needle to thread, but if you're competent, it's doable. Policy preferences among those electorates make it possible.
I wonder to what extent those conditions can be replicated within college athletics. Baker will need to built unity not just among university presidents, but ADs, athletes, coaches, faculty, and other industry stakeholders, something Emmert really struggled with. For a shrewd politician, I think that's a possible feat, albeit a hard one.
The really tricky thing is then also trying to broker deals with Congress, especially this Congress, where the House will be ever-so-narrowly controlled by Republicans, while Democrats control the White House and the Senate. Democrat lawmakers have generally cared much more about NCAA reform than their Republican peers, but have pushed for changes that NCAA leadership has strongly resisted.
We're about to enter what should be an especially polarized legislative environment. With Baker be able to make friends with lawmakers that he could afford to ignore while he was Governor? Could be replicate his governing coalition to ignore extremist types? Is such a thing even possible now?
Baker cited his experience in systems with "distributed decision-making models" in his introductory presser, which makes sense. This environment will be a stiff test of those abilities.
What should we make of Baker's private sector experience?
Prior to becoming governor, Baker was CEO of Harvard Vanguard, and later, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. He has extensive experience in health care management, insurance, research funding, etc.
Outside of direct athlete financial compensation, one of the biggest questions surrounding the future of college sports is athlete health care. Democrats in Congress have sought to include expansions of college athlete health care in various NCAA reform/NIL bills, and the response to COVID attracted additional lawmaker and regulatory interest. What message should say, activists take by the NCAA hiring a Republican health care executive? Is it a coincidence? An opportunity to share deep subject experience? A sign of where additional battle lines might be drawn over the future of athlete compensation? I don't know. But it stuck out to me.
Speaking of experience,
How much does college sports expertise matter anymore?
Think of the major college sports administrative hires over the last few years. The Big Ten hires Kevin Warren out of the NFL, not the college ranks. George Kliavkoff wasn't a college sports guy. Neither was Brett Yormark.
There have been some exceptions (when the ACC hired a new commissioner, they went with Jim Phillips, who has decades of college sports experience, and the Mountain West just hired Gloria Nevarez from the WCC), but it's clear, not having deep college sports ties is no longer a dealbreaker for major college sports jobs.
Part of that reasoning, I think, is because being a major conference commissioner is very much a media job as much as it is an administrative job, and one can have media rights and branding expertise outside of college sports. That wouldn't be the case in 1985.
A guy like Charlie Baker isn't getting hired to lead the NCAA in 2002. Higher education, to say nothing of college sports specifically, is a niche, highly specialized field, full of unique quirks and personalities, and it would be difficult for an outsider to get up to speed quickly enough.
It's still a complicated and quirky industry, but it's clear that the skill sets have shifted. Baker has a lot of experience in delegating and getting up to speed on new industries. How big of a deal will it be that he's never led a university or an athletic department before? Will he be swallowed up by the proverbial system, or will he have the 'juice' to push through any changes?
For new commissioners, there's been a bit of a learning curve. But this is a different job, with different responsibilities.
Okay, but for real, what even is this job right now?
I thought Ross Dellenger, over at SI, asked a smart question during that presser. "How much time do you think you'll be spending in Washington, D.C.?"
Baker didn't know (and to his credit, it probably is too early to say), but it gets to what is an important question about this role right now...is this just a federal government lobbying gig now?
The NCAA Transformation Committee will technically wrap up in January, although school leaders are signalling that they believe that NCAA reform will need to continue beyond that point. How much reform is explicitly tied to what can be secured via federal legislation? What does anybody (athletes, ADs etc.) really expect from this role besides lobbying?
One thing that I think was lacking during the Emmert era, especially post Alston, was a deep explanation for what exactly the NCAA was supposed to be for, and what college athletics was supposed to be moving forward. We know it's a massive scholarship program. We know it's a laboratory for human development and excellence. We know it's a massive entertainment industry. But what Indianapolis was supposed to be doing was not always well articulated to the press, public, or campus level.
Is Baker, an industry outsider, supposed to be the person who comes up with that vision? Or is he merely the vessel to sell it, once NCAA membership decides on what that message is? How is anybody supposed to evaluate how good anybody even is at this job anymore?
I'm going to get asked on sports radio and in my Twitter mentions for the next few days if I think this is a "good hire" or not. Deeply, honestly, I have no idea.
I believe I understand what the NCAA is hoping to do. I can understand, based on Baker's resume and accomplishments, why that might make sense on paper. But I have a lot of follow-up questions.
I'm sure everybody else involved does too.
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