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The Insurgents Who Could Bring Down the NCAA

Inside the fight to give college athletes a piece of the action
The Insurgents Who Could Bring Down the NCAA
Photograph by Donald Miralle/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Mark Emmert, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, doesn’t come across as a villain. Trim in physique with sandy-gray hair, he wears his rectangular glasses far down on his nose and peers over them. His career reflects a singular commitment to higher education. The first in his family to go to college, he went on to earn a doctorate in public administration. Prior to taking over campus sports’ governing body in 2010, Emmert, 61, was chancellor of Louisiana State University and president of the University of Washington, his alma mater. He’s also been an administrator at the University of Connecticut, Montana State, and the University of Colorado. He jokes that he’s “every parent’s nightmare: I went to college and never left.”

Emmert, accompanied by his public-relations aide, Bob Williams, was speaking in a sunny conference room at the NCAA’s modern high-ceilinged headquarters in Indianapolis–a placid refuge from the onslaught that’s lasted all summer. In June, Emmert took the stand in federal court in Oakland, Calif., in a class-action suit called O’Bannon v. NCAA alleging that he runs an exploitative price-fixing cartel. A plaintiffs’ lawyer waved an e-mail Emmert received in 2010 from a senior aide noting that many observers regard the NCAA’s guiding principle–that athletes, first and foremost, are students–as “the great hypocrisy of intercollegiate athletics.” Even as Emmert tried to defend the NCAA’s ban on college athletes’ receiving compensation for their labor–despite the billions they generate for their institutions, for television networks, and for the NCAA itself–screens in the courtroom displayed players at press conferences standing in front of walls densely decorated with corporate logos. Three weeks later, Emmert endured a verbal pummeling before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in Washington. After he explained the limits of the NCAA’s role, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) scoffed: “If you’re just a monetary pass-through, why should you exist?”