NCAA President Mark Emmert started the annual State of the Association address with a number of stories. Those were stories about the first intercollegiate contest, a heavily promoted rowing match between Harvard and Yale; the first football games between Rutgers and Princeton; the use of football to build the reputation of the fledgling University of Chicago; and the narrowly averted end of college football that lead to the formation of the NCAA.
All of these stories were told, as they normally are, to show that the problems of college athletics are nothing new, that there was no Golden Age of competition without commercialization or the need for eligibility rules. Emmert even closed with the story of the first NCAA basketball championship, which had a festival atmosphere that should be replicated in Atlanta this year when all three divisions crown champions in the same weekend.
Emmert chose the coin as his metaphor for this eternal, unchanging challenge. On one side are the championships, which everyone loves. On the other side are the rules and regulations that govern college athletics. One of the purposes of Emmert’s recounting of history was to remind everyone of the time before those rules, when Rutgers and Princeton even played two different types of football in those two first contests, and the Big Ten’s first rule limited teams to three professional athletes. The goal is always to balance the coin on the edge, so the NCAA neither simply operates an entertainment venture nor simply bogs down college athletics by only regulating rather than celebrating and promoting.
Whether you liked Emmert’s speech was likely decided before you sat down. Many will note that while Emmert talked about balance, Division I is not so much changing the weights on either side of the coin, to continue with his metaphor. Rather, mass is being redistributed, away from petty regulations but toward more stringent enforcement of important rules. If you believe the problem was that the coin was too far weighted to the regulation side, not much that the NCAA is doing now will change your mind.
If there is one criticism of Emmert’s remarks, it is that he missed or glossed over one of the major threats to college athletics. Emmert noted that some people want to “push the coin over” towards professional college athletics. But the opposite problem, too much regulation, was not presented as a deliberate process. But there are people who want to push the coin the other way, so that the primary focus of the NCAA is to limit and hold down college athletics by capping spending, imposing ever higher academic standards, and using revenue to promote both.
Aside from that, it was an eloquent summary of the current state of the NCAA. The association is dealing with the same problems as always, but is hopefully doing so with a fresh perspective and new ideas rather than trying to approach it as business as usual. It is now up to the Division I Board of Directors to turn Emmert’s speech into action.