Charlie Baker, new NCAA president, admits it’s a ‘tumultuous time’ in college sports


Charlie Baker has been president of the NCAA for less than two weeks, but he knows he’s stepping into his role on the governing body of major college sports at a tumultuous time.

Baker, most recently governor of Massachusetts, said his friend Utah Sen. Mitt Romney described the transition from state leader to head of a national student-athlete rules organization as “going out of the frying pan and into the fire. ”

“I don’t think people who say he’s going through a turbulent period are exaggerating. I mean, that’s why I took the job,” Baker said in his first television interview since replacing Mark Emmert on March 1. “I could have done a lot of other things that would have been a lot easier.”

As NCAA president, Baker will oversee an organization of 520,000 athletes, 19,000 teams and 1,100 schools in three divisions.

On the first day of the men’s basketball tournament, Baker — who played basketball at Harvard — discussed with CNN’s Chris Wallace the challenges of the job, including the rules for transgender athletes. Gender equity; how student-athletes can benefit from the use of their names, images and likeness (NIL) and transcripts.

And he also told CNN why he thinks there’s so much excitement about March Madness.

“The fact that so many times the underdog wins and the unpredictability and competitive parity that seems to exist drives a lot of that. As someone who has seen big upsets in both the women’s and men’s tournaments over the years … I think that’s a big part,” Baker said. “You just don’t have that many places anymore where it’s so obvious that nobody knows who’s going to win.”

When it comes to transgender competition and how each individual sport’s governing body will decide the rules for women’s participation in sports, Baker said it’s important to balance two issues: inclusion and competitive equality.

“One of the reasons you go after national governing bodies and international and Olympic federations is that you don’t want transgender athletes to have to play by different sets of rules at every step of the process,” he said.

Baker said the standards for who can compete should be based on science, and it shouldn’t be a problem if different sports have different standards.

When swimmer Lia Thomas became the first trans athlete to win an NCAA Division I title last year, Baker said, “I think Lia Thomas sent a very strong message to everybody that people needed to get all their data, all their information and all the up-to-date rules on that matter, which in many cases were not at the time.”

Baker also talked about gender equity issues and the NCAA spending twice as much money on the men’s side of March Madness as the women’s side.

“We’re investing … in a very significant way, but we have a lot of work to do on this and it’s not just basketball, it’s volleyball and softball and a bunch of other leagues as well,” he said.

The NIL deals stem from an NCAA policy change in 2021 that allowed student-athletes to take advantage of sponsorship opportunities. As college sports rake in billions of dollars from television contracts, ticket sales and merchandise, student advocates have said players are being exploited and denied the opportunity to monetize their talents.

The deals, which reportedly run into the millions of dollars, need transparency and accountability for student-athletes and their families — something the current situation “doesn’t have,” Baker said.

But it will be difficult for the NCAA to develop a national plan with states implementing their own laws on the issue, said Baker, a Republican who served as Massachusetts governor from January 2015 to January 2023.

“If states passed laws that said things like, and many of them are currently considering, ‘whatever the NCAA rules are on the NIL, they don’t apply in our state,’ that creates an issue where you put schools and conferences, many of which multiple states are involved, in an impossible position,” he said.

“I think it’s up to us to come up with a proposal that works in its absence [legislation]but I think it will be more difficult to implement in all 50 states if states pass laws that put schools in positions where they have to make the call.”

And Baker said the transfer portal, which allows student-athletes to transfer from one college to another and play without having to sit out a year, is “an important element” in the evolving state of the NIL.

“The two of them are related,” he told Wallace, who raised the prospect of recruiting schools being lured by NIL chances. “I don’t think you can talk about one without talking about the other. … You can’t make progress on these things without recognizing their problems and then finding a way to solve them and deal with them.”

Baker added: “I don’t want people to forget that even at the big schools that are on TV all the time – the vast majority of kids who play these sports are not going to go pro. And we need to make sure that they graduate and that they graduate with a degree that they can actually live with and live with.”

Baker said he is concerned with all the money (and betting) surrounding the tournament and college sports in general.

“(Student athletes) are public figures in their world, just like I am in my public persona,” the former governor said. “Now, I’m an old man (66). I’ve been yelled at and yelled at for years by people for all kinds of reasons. I’m ok with that. … A student athlete told me about a teammate who had just fallen awkwardly on a field. Someone took it and then posted it on social media and it had 15,000 comments and likes within hours.

“That’s not the importance of a missed shot, a missed score, giving up the winning hoop or anything like that when it comes to sports betting. So I’m very concerned about the impact that’s going to be. … I think that could be a real problem.”

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