Years before the bright lights of March Madness, it starts with a kid, a ball and hoop. It might be in a city park, or at the end of a rural road. It’s the opposite of madness. It’s a dream of making it, pure and simple.
For nearly a half million young players, their dreams continue when they become college athletes. And for the NCAA and our more than 1,100 member schools in three divisions, we need to make sure we give them every opportunity to be successful in college, in athletics and for life.
Done right, college sports provide extraordinary opportunities to student-athletes that last a lifetime. And over the last five years, colleges and universities have worked hard to change college athletes’ experiences for the better, in some cases dramatically. But at the same time, the landscape of college sports continues to change, and we must change as well. Important aspects of college sports still need to be fixed and we are working to make tangible change. Our actions must reflect our three key commitments: athletics should be balanced with academics; college athletes must get a fair shake; and as an association we must strive to protect the health and well-being of student-athletes.
Going to college is ultimately about getting a good education, and for many young men and women sports provides them the pathway to a college degree. To help them succeed, we’ve raised the academic requirements for incoming college athletes in Divisions I and II to better prepare them for the rigors they’ll face on campus. We’ve provided financial assistance for schools with limited resources to improve academic support programs. Significantly, we have seen graduation rates rise over the past decade for all student-athletes, whether male or female, minority or not. And just earlier this month, the Board of Governors approved a one-time supplemental distribution of $200 million to Division I schools to be used explicitly for programs that benefit student-athletes.
Being honest about the challenges we face means continually assessing college sports through the lens of fairness. In my view, taking steps such as paying student-athletes – as some have argued – shifts the priority from education to employment. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do more for college athletes. For example, Division I schools now can cover the full cost of attending college, including travel and other expenses of living away from home. Where we must do better is in managing the time spent on athletics – student-athletes must have the time to take advantage of the full college experience. This can mean more time for internships, studying abroad and other experiences outside the classroom. We cannot put college athletes in a position where because of sports, they can’t capitalize on these important learning opportunities – and they are leading the effort to address this issue anew. Through the Student-Athlete Advisory Committees, we are surveying student-athletes right now to understand how time management issues differ among sports, as a one-size-fits-all approach may garner good headlines but not real results.
We also must stay true to the reason of our founding more than 100 years ago: the health and well-being of student-athletes. The NCAA has partnered with the U.S. Department of Defense, investing $30 million on the largest concussion study in history. Conferences like the Pac-12 and the Ivy League have taken the lead in applying best practices, putting medical decisions into the hands of an independent doctor and limiting contact in football practice – measures now being implemented more broadly across our membership. We are working in concert with the White House to stop sexual assault on campus through the “It’s on Us” campaign. And the entire college sports community is engaging in a critical conversation on mental health and wellness. More than anything else, we must do all we can to protect student-athletes so that they can go on to succeed after college sports.
While the excitement of March Madness plays out, it’s important to remember that college athletics is more than competition. It’s about academics, getting a fair shot, and well-being. We want those kids who fell in love with the game years before seeing a path to a championship tournament – or college at all, for that matter – to grow and succeed throughout their lives, carrying forward the learnings from playing college sports. That’s a responsibility we must embrace every day.
Emmert is President of the NCAA.