Charlie Baker admitted it himself: The NCAA is at a crossroads.
The outgoing Massachusetts governor will take over as president of the organization in March, succeeding longtime leader Mark Emmert.
He’ll be faced with a number of immediate challenges — NIL, the transfer portal, television negotiations — against the backdrop of changing views on amateurism, on which the NCAA was founded.
Here’s what we know about Baker’s appointment.
What happened to the NCAA under Mark Emmert’s tenure? Why is he stepping down?
Emmert took over as president of the NCAA in November 2010 after a six-year tenure as president of the University of Washington. Early in his term, the NCAA was hit with a class-action antitrust lawsuit led by Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player, who argued his likeness, which had been licensed for use in video games, was not property of the NCAA. More than 20 plaintiffs, including the late Bill Russell, joined the lawsuit.
The NCAA appealed a lower-court decision in favor of the athletes and won. But the legal process set off a new movement for the rights of student athletes to control their own image.
In 2015, football players at Northwestern tried to unionize (the National Labor Relations Board rejected their bid) and the NCAA agreed to expand scholarship benefits to include room and board in addition to tuition — both moments that indicated a shift in power toward players.
In March 2021, social media posts from women’s basketball players like Oregon’s Sedona Prince highlighted immense discrepancies between how female athletes were treated vs. male athletes in marquee events like the NCAA basketball tournaments. The outrage that followed prompted the NCAA to make changes around branding and resources for women’s events.
A month after the NCAA tournaments wrapped in 2021, Emmert’s contract was extended through 2025.
Four months later in August, the NCAA lost a unanimous Supreme Court decision in NCAA vs. Alston. That specific case surrounded benefits received by athletes, like computers and tutoring, but signaled a broader shift — that the court saw through the NCAA’s claims of amateurism being essential to the business model.
Despite the contract extension, in April 2022 the NCAA announced Emmert would step down by June 2023. His decision to leave his position was greeted with enthusiasm from his detractors, who were concerned about Emmert’s ability to lead amid a changing landscape.
Why did the NCAA see Baker as a good fit?
Baker often polls as one of the most popular governors in the United States, a moderate Republican leading liberal Massachusetts.
But it’s not his popularity that earned him the job.
Baker is an unorthodox choice for NCAA president because his background lies not in academia, but in the private sector and politics.
But headhunter Len Perna had Baker recommended to him by Sam Kennedy, Red Sox president and CEO.
“First of all, he’s a former student-athlete, he’s always been passionate about sports, especially college sports, he’s got experience as a CEO, he’s had experience in private equity, but he’s very empathetic and has tons of compassion,” said Kennedy. “And, perhaps most importantly, he is politically wired into the White House and Congress and the Senate. He understands how to get things done, and the NCAA has a ton of challenges right now and a ton of opportunities. He just seems to be the perfect leader at the perfect time.”
Linda Livingstone, president of Baylor University and the NCAA’s Board of Governors, echoed that sentiment during Baker’s introductory press conference on Thursday.
“Governor Baker is truly an exceptionally accomplished individual, who throughout his entire career, has demonstrated an appetite to take on really big and complex problems, as well as the ability to tackle them in remarkably effective and creative ways,” she said. “This effectiveness of this style is in large part to the way he’s approached those problems by identifying high impact issues and building consensus among really diverse constituencies, and taking a bipartisan approach that transcends conventional political divides.”
What are the biggest issues facing the NCAA right now?
The NCAA faces a lot of issues. Here are four to watch:
Name Image and Likeness in the courts: In 2021, NCAA leaders responded to a number of new state laws surrounding an athlete’s ability to market themselves by changing rules around amateurism. Now, the NCAA will allow an athlete to make money off of their name, image, and likeness. While still largely unregulated, NIL has changed how schools recruit athletes — athletes, of course, cannot choose a school because they received some sort of gift, but they can evaluate how similar players on campus are compensated. While NIL likely won’t go away, Baker will need to determine how the NCAA intends to regulate NIL deals to ensure equity across the board.
Transfer portal: The NCAA changed its rules in 2021 to allow for athletes in football, basketball, men’s ice hockey, and baseball to transfer to a different school once without sitting out a year, as they were previously required. The way athletes do that is by using the transfer portal. This change means all NCAA sports at all divisions are following the same rules. But because of the high-profile nature of sports like football and basketball, the rule change has opened the floodgates: ESPN reports that more than 1,600 college football players have entered the portal since it opened on Dec. 5.
So, what will Baker do about it? The NCAA had resisted the rule change for so long because some feel it introduces free agency to college sports, but leaders were forced to adjust after hearing criticism over coaches leaving schools — and the athletes they recruited — for big-money contracts elsewhere. Baker will need to figure out if the portal’s popularity will decline, or if it will only get worse.
Conference TV contracts: The NCAA does not negotiate most media rights contracts. Instead, that falls on the conferences. The Power 5 conferences — the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12 — have the most bargaining power, and they use it. The Big Ten signed a seven-year deal across Fox, CBS, and NBC earlier this year worth more than $7 billion. The Big 12 signed an extension on its deal with Fox and ESPN through 2031 that is worth more than $2.2 billion.
The money from these contracts goes back to the schools in the conferences, and can contribute to a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. Yes, some money will go back into a general pool distributed among other NCAA schools. But the growing power of conferences could signal a sea change in the NCAA. Schools need to be part of the NCAA to participate in postseason tournaments, but if enough powerful conferences try to break away, it could spell doom for Baker’s new organization.
Gender inequities: The NCAA held its most equitable men’s and women’s Division 1 basketball tournaments this past March — a direct result of a dire report by a third-party reviewer that found the NCAA was drastically undervaluing and not supporting women’s basketball the same way it was supporting men’s basketball.
The change was spurred by social media posts that showed the resources offered to women during the NCAA tournament in 2021 vs. men. Women worked out in a hotel ballroom while men had their own weight room. Male players had mountains of freebies; female players received a few branded items.
In 2022, the women played under the “March Madness” branding for the first time in history. But what’s next for the NCAA? Will Baker take a look at the books and work to prioritize gender equity at the college level?
How much will Baker make in the role?
That’s still unclear, but Emmert made $2.9 million in 2019-20 according to public records, despite deep revenue declines due to the COVID-19 pandemic (the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, one of the organization’s largest revenue generators, was canceled).
Baker makes $185,000 as Massachusetts governor, plus a $65,000 annual housing stipend — $250,000 in all.
What are people saying about his appointment?
Several political figures issued statements after the appointment.
Grant Hill, the former NBA star who played four seasons at Duke and won two NCAA championships, is an independent member of the NCAA Board of Governors and member of the presidential search committee.
“We know that to be successful, the NCAA president needs to possess the ability to balance competing priorities, inspire a shared vision, and create a broad sense of trust,” said Hill. “As Governor of Massachusetts and a successful private sector CEO, Charlie Baker has demonstrated the type of results-oriented, bipartisan approach that we will need to bolster the well-being of student-athletes, realize the opportunities and overcome the challenges facing the NCAA.”
Governor-elect Maura Healey, who played point guard for the Harvard women’s basketball team from 1988-92, released a statement congratulating Baker.
“Congratulations to Governor Baker on his new position as President of the NCAA. 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.”
UMass president Marty Meehan took to Twitter to voice his approval.
Harvard men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker also offered his congratulations to Baker on Twitter, along with a photo of the two.
"I want to express my heartfelt congratulations to Governor Charlie Baker on his appointment as the next President of the NCAA."— Harvard Men’s Basketball (@HarvardMBB) December 15, 2022
A statement from Coach Amaker on @CharlieBakerMA becoming the next @NCAA President!#GoCrimson #OneCrimson pic.twitter.com/y9EQdQme65
Congresswoman Lori Trahan, who played volleyball at Georgetown and sponsored the College Athlete Economic Freedom Act, released a statement saying she looked forward to continuing to work with Baker in his new role.
“Governor Baker has been an extremely effective leader in Massachusetts, having steered our Commonwealth through some of the most difficult moments in recent history. From the Merrimack Valley gas explosions to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve had the honor of seeing up close the way Governor Baker approaches leadership and the importance of bringing people together, especially in the hardest of times. We owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for his service that has undoubtedly positioned Massachusetts to succeed in the years ahead.”
“The 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. The Association desperately needs a proven leader who personally understands the unique needs of the nearly 500,000 college athletes it serves and who is prepared to do what’s necessary to right the ship. I commend Governor Baker for taking on this new challenge, and I believe his experience as a college basketball player coupled with his extensive career spanning both the public and private sectors will serve him well in this position.”
“I look forward to working with Governor Baker to help chart a path forward where the NCAA and college athletics as a whole work for the people who matter most – athletes.”
Read more about Charlie Baker
- Outgoing Mass. Governor Charlie Baker has a new job: the next NCAA president
- Shaughnessy: Good luck, Charlie Baker, you’ve got your work cut out at the NCAA, and other thoughts
- How Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy helped Charlie Baker become the next NCAA president
- What makes Charlie Baker a good fit to become NCAA president? For starters, he played basketball at Harvard.
- Mitt Romney on Charlie Baker’s move to the NCAA: ‘Into the fire’