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Over 12 years, Mark Emmert helped the NCAA make billions — but what's his legacy?


After 12 years at the helm of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, the organization's president, has announced he plans to step down by June 30 of 2023. This comes just one year after he signed an extension to lead the NCAA through 2025. During Emmert's time in leadership, the NCAA's revenue exceeded $1 billion a year through television contracts. But his tenure has also been marked by several controversies and major changes in the ways student athletes are treated.

Nicole Auerbach is a senior writer with The Athletic, and she joins us now to talk about this. Hey, Nicole.

NICOLE AUERBACH: Hey. Thanks for having me.

SCHMITZ: So Nicole, I'm curious. Why has the NCAA reached this agreement on his resignation now? I mean, last year around this time, the inequity between the men's and women's basketball tournaments came to light. Was that the final straw, or was it something else?

AUERBACH: Well, I think that a lot of this has just been building. And, you know, one administrator put it this way - he lost the locker room. And there have been a lot of athletic directors and commissioners who have been very disappointed with his lack of leadership and also just reactive ways to changing issues. I mean, name, image and likeness - the NCAA was so far behind on and not proactive at all, and the courts ended up deciding, you know, basically what the framework can be for athlete compensation related to academic benefits, which paved the way for a largely unregulated space in name, image and likeness right now. And I think there's a number of issues. The women's basketball tournament is absolutely one.

But the phrase, losing a locker room, I think is a really good way to think about this because when people have lost faith in you as a leader, it becomes really hard to lead. And I think there's so many changes going on with NCAA governance and what the future of college sports will be, I think there were a lot of people who felt like this was a natural breaking point and a good time to have somebody else who can actually lead this organization.

SCHMITZ: You mentioned the name, image and likeness controversy. And, you know, his critics - as you say, he stood in the way of progress on this front. You know, as you've covered the NCAA, how do you see it? I mean, was he, in any way, a catalyst for change? I mean, we've - you just mentioned how he was a big barrier to it.

AUERBACH: Well, there were different times, I think, where, you know, he has tried to lead an organization to certain points. And it's a membership organization, so you need buy-ins. So whether or not that was related to cost-of-attendance stipends that help bring athlete scholarships basically up to the full cost of attendance that other scholarships bring regular students on campus - I mean, he has pushed for different things over the years. But I think, you know, we saw overreach in terms of sanctions in response to Penn State. We have seen, you know, kind of him put his foot in his mouth on a number of different issues.

He's talked a lot about existential crises facing college sports, and he's used that term so many different times I think it's lost a little bit of its bite. But I think the legal strategy in relation to the Alston case, which was - ended up going all the way up the Supreme Court. And again, just the lack of leadership in getting people behind and working together on various issues to get out in front on the name, image and likeness issue - those are things that people have constantly talked about, and it's just gotten worse and worse, again, as we've seen how unregulated it is.

SCHMITZ: What do you think the NCAA will be looking for in its next president?

AUERBACH: Well, I think it's going to be either - you know, we're going have to figure out what the organization looks like. Is it just about running championships and certifying eligibility? That would lead to a certain candidate. Or is it about getting people to work together, working with the Power Five commissioners?

You know, there were a couple of names that continue to come up, and it's a lot of university presidents who really understand athletics, like a Jim Clements at Clemson, I think is a really strong candidate for that reason. But you have to be able to marry the academic mission with athletic experience, but also lived athletic experience.

SCHMITZ: That's Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MODERAT SONG, "INTRUDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.