Mark Emmert, the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the almighty overseer of American college sports, likes to think of himself as a reformer. A few months ago, after he’d been on the job for a little more than a year, he pushed through a series of improvements, including slightly higher academic standards for college athletes, a full-scale review of the N.C.A.A.’s fat rule book and a new provision giving universities the option of offering four-year scholarships. The current one-year deals are, believe it or not, renewable at the discretion of coaches, who can effectively cut injured or underperforming “student athletes,” as the N.C.A.A. likes to call them.
And one other thing: With Emmert’s backing, the N.C.A.A.’s board of directors, composed of college and university presidents (Emmert himself is a former president of the University of Washington), agreed to make it permissible for Division I schools to pay their athletes a $2,000 stipend. When I saw Emmert in November, shortly after the new rule went into effect, I told him that the stipend struck me as a form of payment to the players. He visibly stiffened. “If we move toward a pay-for-play model — if we were to convert our student athletes to employees of the university — that would be the death of college athletics,” Emmert retorted. “Then they are subcontractors. Why would you even want them to be students? Why would you care about their graduation rates? Why would you care about their behavior?” No, he insisted, the extra $2,000 was an effort to increase the value of the scholarships, which some studies estimate falls on average about $3,500 short of the full cost of attending college annually.