No one can claim that two-term governor and former Harvard hoopster Charlie Baker is taking the easy way out when he leaves office next year.
Baker was named Thursday as the new president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body for a multibillion-dollar industry with more than a half-million student athletes. While the NCAA stages some of the nation’s premier sporting events, it is also beset by deeply embedded legal, political, financial, and cultural challenges that might make State House squabbles look tame by comparison.
The Republican governor, who departs as one of the most popular elected officials in the country, will be tasked with helping the organization through a period of upheaval on multiple fronts, as college athletes in some states are now able to earn money from endorsements and transfer to different schools through a process that some say owes more to sports competition than academics.
The new job will test whether Baker’s amiable brand of centrist politics will translate into the thorny world of college athletics.
Baker, who chose not to run for a third term, said Thursday that he did not seek out the NCAA top job and was instead approached about the opening in the fall.
“My initial reaction was that I was not exactly what you would call a traditional candidate,” he quipped during a virtual news conference.
Baker, who played basketball for Harvard University in the 1970s, will succeed Mark Emmert as the seventh leader of the NCAA since 1951.
He will start March 1. His term as governor ends Jan. 5.
For months, Baker has dodged questions about his next steps, saying he was focused on finishing his term.
Now, Baker may find himself jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, given the magnitude of challenges awaiting him.
The NCAA has finally accepted the reality that amateur athletes can make money off their sports personas. The new system, known as Name, Image and Likeness (NIL), allows student-athletes to market themselves and be paid. Yet a patchwork of laws across 50 states has resulted in somewhat of a Wild West landscape with athletes.
Long-term TV deals exceed $1 billion in seven conferences, with the Big Ten’s average annual value set at $1.15 billion a year on average. A top football coach such as Nick Saban at Alabama makes close to $12 million a year and now, with NIL deals, his quarterback Bryce Young made more than $3 million this year hawking Dr Pepper and Nissan cars in television commercials.
The particular challenge facing Baker was framed by Boston College’s athletic director, Blake James.
“How do we create an approach to the NIL that allows our young people to capitalize on legitimate Name, Image and Likeness opportunities while at the same time create some guardrails that has everyone operating within a certain structure?” James said.
There is also an air of chaos revolving around the so-called transfer portal system that athletes use to switch schools, including why some are given waivers to immediately play at their new programs, while others are not.
Another NCAA minefield is the emergence of sports betting, which Baker enthusiastically endorsed as governor. A majority of states have legalized sports betting, but rules vary when it comes to betting on college sports. In 2019 Emmert raised concerns about increasing legal gambling on college sports, according to published reports. But then, earlier this year, the NCAA said it would allow schools and conferences to sell data for sports betting.
Moreover, regulators in states including Massachusetts are keeping an eye on sports betting operators marketing their offerings on college campuses where a substantial portion of the student population is under the 21-year-old minimum.
Add in multiple complex and expensive lawsuits that the association has been waging, often unsuccessfully, about the extent and abuse of its powers, and the sum product is a quagmire unlike any Baker confronted in two terms as governor.
Navigating the challenges is a “top and immediate priority,” the organization said in a release.
Some say Baker is ill equipped for the task.
“The NCAA is in a moral dilemma, it’s in a racial and gender dilemma, and a deep financial dilemma,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College who has written extensively about the sports industry. “If he thought being Massachusetts governor was tough, he has no idea what he’s stepping into . . . It’s an organization that’s poorly run. It’s run in the interests of private sector people involved in college athletics, and it’s basically divorced itself from what it claims its mission is.”
Others are more hopeful for the new direction Baker may take the troubled organization.
Dan Lebowitz, the director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, said that while the NCAA “has been an indentured servitude system for a long time,” he does believe Baker can bring more diversity and justice for the athletes whose performance delivers tremendous revenues to the nation’s colleges and universities.
“The NCAA just really needs somebody who is clear-minded, clear-sighted, and capable to lead a transformational change,” he said.
Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Sport and Social Justice, cited Baker’s support for transgender rights, same-sex marriage, and grants for businesses and nonprofits led by people of color, opining that Baker shows a “proven commitment to diversity and inclusivity.”
“He sees equal rights as human rights,” Lapchick said.
The NCAA said Baker’s “history of successfully forging bipartisan solutions to complex problems stood out” to the search committee.
Baker acknowledged the difficult work, too, noting that the challenge “is significant,” but that “the possibilities and the opportunities, if we are successful, are enormous.”
“I’m very honored and grateful for this chance,” he said.
The NCAA focused on someone with a political background early in the process, according to the Sports Business Journal, and the organization added that a seven-person search committee solicited input from more than 300 people.
Baker has some personal sports experience. He was a forward on the 1977-78 men’s varsity basketball team at Harvard, and his wife, Lauren, was a college gymnast at Northwestern University — “probably the best athlete in the family,” he said Thursday.
Baker came to the attention of the NCAA after its headhunter reached out to Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy.
The headhunter “was describing what college sports needed and he started to walk me through the qualifications that they were looking for and Charlie just immediately popped into my head,” Kennedy said Thursday.
Emmert announced he was stepping down in April after 12 years in the job. He will continue to serve the NCAA as a consultant through June 2023.
ESPN reported last year that Emmert made $2.9 million during the 2019-2020 fiscal year. In 2020, Baker made about $185,000 in base pay.
Baker will not officially start his new job until March 1, after the 2023 NCAA Convention in San Antonio but just before the start of the Final Four basketball tournament. He does not plan to move to Indianapolis, where the NCAA is headquartered, aides said.
In Massachusetts, political and athletic circles alike lauded the pick, characterizing Baker as the right leader for the moment.
Governor-elect Maura Healey, a former point guard for Harvard, congratulated him by sharing on social media a photo of the pair on a basketball court.
“I know he knows the important role athletics can play and I’m excited for the future of college sports and student-athletes under his leadership,” the Cambridge Democrat said.
Representative Lori Trahan, a Lowell Democrat and former college volleyball player, said she hopes to see Baker “chart a path forward” for the NCAA.
“NCAA is at an inflection point where athletes and the millions of fans who root them on have largely lost faith in it as an organization,” she said in a statement. “The Association desperately needs a proven leader who personally understand the unique needs of the nearly 500,000 college athletes it serves.”
At an unrelated event in East Boston Thursday morning, someone in the crowd congratulated Baker on the new gig.
He laughed: “I still have my old job!”
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.