From Penn State to football’s playoff, from an enforcement restructuring to higher academic standards, Nathan Hatch’s leadership of the NCAA Division Board of Directors arrives at a turbulent time for college sports.
Wake Forest’s president since 2005, Hatch was elected board chairman last month. His term is two years.
“It’s a very interesting time on many fronts,” Hatch said during a recent phone interview. “I think overall in the last 20 years, college athletics is much more consistent in quality, much more focused on the well-being of student-athletes, has much more financial integrity.
“The whole process of certification that’s been going on for the last, almost 20 years, whereby institutions have peer reviews. It’s a process that has real teeth in it, has been an overall upgrading in the kind of standards of issues of racial and gender equity that have made overall college athletics much stronger.
“So I don’t think there was a golden age from which we’ve fallen. In fact, the further back you go, the more patent the corruption was. I can remember when I started teaching at Notre Dame in the mid-1970s, I can remember an All-American tight end, Ken McAfee, took a class from me, and he said when he was recruited, except for Notre Dame, every school he (visited during his recruitment) they would put bundles of cash in his hand.
“So I think in some ways we do have problems. But I think by and large they are ferreted out and changes are made.”
My interview with Hatch ended mere hours before North Carolina announced that the NCAA had found no rules violations connected to the school’s burgeoning academic scandal. So I was unable to ask him about the contradiction in how the NCAA treated Penn State and UNC.
Here are the remaining portions of the interview about NCAA policy:
QUESTION: So you don’t believe college athletics has lost its way.
ANSWER: “I’m pretty optimistic. I do think the competitive pressures always loom and will push people to win at all costs. But that’s the kind of discipline that institutions have to show.
“I (do) wish there was minor-league football. To some extent, I also wish players who didn’t want to go to college could go straight to the NBA. The NCAA would like that, but that’s something set by the NBA, largely influenced by the players association.
“I think if there’s a problem it’s that anyone who wants to play football seriously has to go to college (for three years). So in some cases I think you’re forcing people to go to college who don’t have necessarily the interest, disposition, and in some cases, probably ability. That’s an ongoing challenge.”
Q: Are you comfortable with how the Division I board and NCAA president Mark Emmert circumvented standard enforcement procedure to punish Penn State?
A: “The discussions with that were both with the executive committee, on which I sit, and the full Division I board. An overlapping group. There were probably 30 presidents and chancellors involved, and I think there was a strong sense, virtually universal, that it was the right thing to do. Something quick needed to be done.
“Certainly the thing could be studied forever, but the Freeh Report was about as comprehensive a report as one could imagine by an outside, very respected person and his staff, commissioned by Penn State itself. I do think Mark Emmert has consistently said this is an exception, that it doesn’t necessarily set precedent. I support what happened.”
Q: In October, the NCAA expects to adopt a new enforcement model that will entail harsher, more explicit sanctions. What is the philosophy behind this? Has the NCAA been inconsistent and lenient?
A: “I think several things are going on. There’s an attempt in the enforcement (division) to streamline things, to try to sort out, so there’s not so much attention to minutia and the so-called 1,000-page rulebook … and focus on what’s really important, the principles behind it. …
“But then for things where there has been serious institutional failure to try and set forth more explicitly what the penalties would be and to make them substantial enough to hopefully be deterrents. … There’s also going to be various panels so there also going to try to speed up the process, and I think all those things are good.”
Q: In 2016, academic standards for incoming freshmen will increase dramatically. The NCAA’s own data shows more than 40 percent of men’s basketball signees in 2009 would have fallen short of the new guidelines. Are the changes too drastic?
A: “ think there’s a fine balance. … But I fully applaud this. It’s going to take several years, and there’s great effort to communicate with students and high schools about what the standards are and what courses need to be taken. … It’s such a disservice to student-athletes who either can’t do the work or get a college degree that isn’t worth anything. …
“There’s serious attention to whether this will negatively impact one group, particularly African-Americans. I think the answer is everyone needs to work to make sure they become student-athletes and that they have to know that in high school.”
Q: A year ago, adding a $2,000 cost-of-attendance stipend to scholarships appeared to be all but done. Now the NCAA has tapped the breaks. What happened?
A: “It’s a complicated issue. … There is not an equal playing field in all of Division I. Athletic budgets range from $10 million to $150 million. The assumption was when that was discussed and passed (preliminarily) was that conference by conference people would sort themselves out, and schools of lesser resource would choose not to (participate), that this was something that would not be forced but would be allowed.
“But in the competitive nature of things … schools felt like if that became the new edge of competition, then they would have to follow suit. And that’s where I think it’s fair to say big divisions came between better resourced and lower resourced institutions.
“Even at a place like Wake Forest, I think the additional $2,000 would cost us half-a-million dollars a year. … At the NCAA Convention last year, there was a committee of student-athletes, and they were adamantly opposed to it because a number of the members were from smaller schools, and what they said was there’s not going to be money in the budget for this, and the fear was it would come out of Olympic sports. And it wouldn’t be football or basketball that would suffer.
“So that’s the real debate, and it’s ongoing. There are some voices, even among bigger schools, that say with Pell Grants and so forth … the $2,000 (isn’t) needed, that even someone who comes from modest means has the resources to go to college.
“And I think the latest discussion is, if it would pass, it would have some kind of means testing. It might not go to everyone. ... On our campus I would say we’re sort of where the NCAA is on this. We’re betwixt and between. There’s not universal support for this. So I’m not sure what will happen.
“The proposal is designed as a student-welfare issue. The interesting thing about the press so often is they tend to forget, they tend to look at the big sports, football and basketball, and tend to forget that when you do things you’re talking about all student-athletes and you’re doing it for soccer and volleyball and lacrosse and tennis and rowing, sports which never can pay for themselves. The financial reality is, football is providing 80-85 percent of the external funding for everything.”
Q: Is the playoff coming to college football a positive change?
A: “I think it was positive, logical and showed a lot of common sense. There is huge interest in more of a playoff, but at the same time, by and large universities, and particularly their presidents and chancellors, do fear an extended season.
“It’s complicated by the decision made five, six years ago to go to 12 (regular-season) games. If that was not in place, it might be more probable. But it’s going to be very hard to pull that (12th game) back because everybody does that.
“(The playoff) builds upon the current bowls, and there’s a huge tradition there. There will be a certain controversy: How will these four teams be picked (by the selection committee)? … But I think like in basketball – I know from experience, our athletic director, Ron Wellman, is on that committee. … The amount of time that goes into that committee, people wouldn’t believe. I think a football committee would be similar.
“I think another thing that’s coming out of it is to reassert … New Year’s Day as a principle time when bowl games will happen. I think there’s been a dispersion of bowl games. They extend on into January. They’re midweek after most people have gone back to work.”
Q: Is expansion of the playoff inevitable?
A: “I’m not sure it is at least I have never seen among CEOs of universities a move to try to make this (bigger), because if you do that, you’re going to extend it into the second semester. I think one has to see how this system plays out.
“People love the bowl system. I do think there are too many bowls. … The NCAA has not wanted to get into the issue of how many bowls there are. I think there are anti-trust issues. People wouldn’t like to see a diminution of the overall bowl system that gives a lot of institutions and their fans and their student-athletes an opportunity to go to a bowl.
“If a playoff system were intended as a substitute for a broad bowl system I don’t think there would be a great deal of support for it.”
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