The new president of the NCAA is the red leader of a blue state, the Republican governor in Massachusetts, where Democrats control the legislature. His name is Charlie Baker, he has spent eight years in the sewer that is the confluence of state, local and national politics, and by all accounts, he has done well.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, has prepared Baker for what awaits him in Indianapolis, though I use those words advisedly, seeing how the sixth president of the NCAA doesn’t plan to actually live there. That’s what aides have told reporters in Boston, where Baker has served as governor since 2015.
Maybe it’s best he stays where he is, near the comforts of home. He’ll need that safe feeling you get when you already know your butcher, your baker, your candlestick maker, to say nothing of your primary care physician and therapist. He’s walking into a job – sorry, telecommuting into a job – that won’t get rocky. It’s already there, and getting rockier.
The landslide is coming, Gov. Baker.
The NCAA was created in 1906 to oversee amateur athletes in college, which were offering valuable scholarships – a full ride! – to teenagers in exchange for draconian control over the next four years of their life. That’s gone, of course. The athletes are professional now, and they can leave whenever they want and go wherever they want, thanks to something magical, something that sounds like it’s straight out of ‘Star Trek,’ with Spock and Sulu stepping into the Starship Enterprise transfer portal and reappearing at Auburn or BYU.
The transfer portal was created in 2018 as a one-time opportunity for athletes to find a more fitting college home. Those were words from the actual NCAA literature, which referred to the portal as offering “a one-time transfer exception.”
Less than four years later, athletes around the country are competing at their third or even fourth school. The NCAA changed its transfer portal rules, because when it comes to college sports, nothing is real. Not the one-time transfer exception, not amateurism, not gender equity or even a sense of fair play.
Baker worked with 160 members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and 40 members of the state senate. He worked with 47 mayors around the state, to say nothing of 49 other U.S. governors and Congress and a White House that has swung wildly in his time, from Presidents Obama to Trump to Biden.
That’s cute. Try working with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.
Baker goes into this with eyes open as widely as he can muster.
“Yeah,” he said during his introductory NCAA news conference Thursday, “it’s big and complicated. So have been a lot of things I’ve done in my life, but most of the time, they were absolutely worth doing.”
We’ll see. Baker comes with all the credentials you could want, having worked in the private sector, public sector, in healthcare, in politics. He’s a former NCAA athlete, albeit for a short time and in the land of make believe. He averaged 1.6 points over eight games in 1977-78, a 6-6 forward at Harvard, where they don’t give scholarships or have a TV contract with ESPN, and have never been accused of any Level 1 NCAA recruiting violations.
Playing basketball at Harvard in 1978 is like being fifth-grade president at French Lick Elementary. No offense to Harvard. It just did nothing dirty or awful in 1978 to prepare Charlie Baker for what awaits him in March 2023, when he officially replaces Mark Emmert as president of the NCAA.
Well, maybe that whole “land of make believe” stuff will come in handy. The NCAA has become a place where rules are made and broken and then just changed, because it’s easier to rewrite the rulebook than to truly punish Arizona or South Carolina or Oklahoma State for recruiting violations that actually put some of their coaches in prison.
For years, the NCAA has been a rabid dog wagged by the SEC as the other Power 5 conferences followed the SEC’s lead like ticks up the tail. It’s an infestation of NIL money and player mobility that will take a system that has never been truly equitable – Florida and Ohio State in the same classification with James Madison and something called, let me see, Texas State? – and make it so outrageously unfair that massive change is coming. The biggest conferences with the biggest revenues are tired of sharing their March Madness and College Football Playoff pies with Central, Eastern and Western Michigan.
That’s one reason why the NCAA now merely slaps the hands of its biggest schools for massive rule violations – for fear of triggering the Power 5 breakaway we all know is coming – and constantly rewrites its rulebook about NIL and the transfer portal. The NCAA has zero power anymore, wedged uncomfortably between conferences with billion-dollar TV contracts and free-moving, money-making players backed by the united support of the Supreme Court.
And Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, or anybody, is going to take this job and make the NCAA markedly better? Love to see it, really would. Would also love to see unicorns and the Wing-T, but like the new NCAA president’s career in big-time college sports, those don’t exist anymore. If they ever did.
Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/greggdoyelstar.