Charlie Baker found a job more challenging — and Sisyphean, some would say — than trying to fix the MBTA, going from tackling the State House to tackling the state of college sports.
The popular former Massachusetts governor took over as NCAA president March 1. Like when he became governor, Baker was immediately confronted with a major storm and a need for major reform.
The mere letters “NCAA” cause some college sports fans to recoil in disgust. The association has earned a reputation as an unsympathetic, obtuse, heavy-handed organization. Buffeted by strong winds of change in college sports, Bureaucratic Big Blue is at an inflection point. Name, Image, and Likeness compensation for athletes, the transfer portal, and Power 5 football as the fulcrum for radical conference realignment have put the NCAA on its heels and defanged it.
Enter Baker, who has a reputation as a pragmatic problem-solver.
“College sports is obviously going through a challenging period here with all kinds of things pushing and pulling on it, and I would like to think that you know I can solve some of those problems,” said Baker, who played college basketball at Harvard. “We’ll see.
“Most of my career I’ve been in service roles. I’m not uncomfortable with a lot of people with a lot of points of view yelling and screaming at me about what they think the right thing to do is. Those all seem like pretty good qualifications for this job.”
The 66-year-old Baker is taking over the oversight of college sports at a time when it’s not that dissimilar to our country’s unsettled political state. A sense of comity and compromising for the common good is waning. Instead, conferences, schools, and players are engaging in rampant individualism, doing what will benefit them the most without regard for the collective.
The NCAA’s quaint “student-athlete” model has seen more holes poked in it by the courts, including a unanimous Supreme Court decision, than a colander. March remains the tent-pole month for the NCAA with college basketball. But the College Football Playoff, the most lucrative college sports property, runs outside its auspices. The same for the arms-race TV contracts that the SEC and the Big Ten have negotiated.
But Baker reminds everyone that NCAA and its mission are bigger than being a feeder program for pro sports and television inventory. The NCAA serves 520,000 college athletes competing for 1,150 member institutions across three divisions.
“I think you’re still talking about a space in which 99.9 percent of the student-athletes who participate are not going to go pro,” said Baker. “I still believe it’s get an education because the vast majority — and I mean the vast majority — will be able to put that to work in a way that won’t involve playing professionally.”
Baker’s most immediate impact could be felt in the NIL space, which is as lawless and shady as the Russian economy following the fall of the Soviet Union.
The pol, who is not moving to NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, does not believe the NCAA should just punt to Congress or his former gubernatorial colleagues when it comes to crafting NIL regulation. He believes the NCAA can work in concert with those parties to create standardized NIL contracts, contract registration, and certification for agents, so student-athletes aren’t flying blind. He likened it to guidelines for any financial services contract, like a mortgage.
“I think the NCAA should work hard to create a protocol and policies to deal with this, but we do run into some complicated state issues with respect to that,” said Baker. “It doesn’t take a lot of states to go down a wildly different road from one another and from us to really screw up a conference.”
What’s clear is Baker doesn’t want student-athletes and families to perceive the NCAA as an adversary. He’s promoting a kinder, gentler NCAA. He advocated athletes who leave school to turn pro being able to have 10 years to use their scholarships to get a degree, and to provide two years of post-playing health insurance.
He’s not threatened by entities such as the NBA’s G League Ignite that have siphoned some of the best college basketball players from the NCAA’s marquee product.
Gender equity also is important to Baker. His wife, Lauren, was a college gymnast at Northwestern. He has a daughter, Caroline. He says he wants more measurables to ensure that women’s sports are treated equally.
One of the biggest changes in college sports has been the advent of the transfer portal, allowing athletes to transfer without having to sit out a season. The portal has brought about de facto unfettered free agency in major college football and basketball. Teams shop for players, and players shop for better opportunities — both in terms of playing time and NIL.
There’s also poaching. The most high-profile case, perhaps, came last year when Jordan Addison, the best wide receiver in college football, transferred from Pittsburgh to the University of Southern California.
The NCAA is trying to rein in the portal peripatetics. Undergraduates who transfer a second time won’t be automatically eligible immediately, starting next season.
Baker blamed COVID for the volume of player movement via the portal — athletes were extended an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic.
“So, I don’t think it looks quite like free agency. I think that’s a little bit of an exaggeration,” Baker said. “I do think that the number of student-athletes, particularly given the issues with COVID and their eligibility, generally created a dynamic that was a little different than what you’re going to see going forward.”
Baker defended such freedom of movement and said it applies to all college students.
“Look, I know a lot of people, not for sports reasons, but for other reasons that transferred their first year to a different school because they concluded it was a bad fit,” he said. “You’re talking to one of those kids. I’ve never been shy about the fact that Harvard was probably not the right place for me, but I sucked it up because it was Harvard.”
Baker’s investment in this role is personal and professional. His two sons both played Division 3 college football, Charlie at Denison and A.J. at Union.
“It’s a huge human development machine where you learn about teamwork and discipline, and it teaches you accountability,” he said. “That was certainly true for our kids and people we know.”
Good luck, Charlie. You have a difficult job … again.