Incoming NCAA president Charlie Baker believes college sports will change significantly during his tenure but expects that process will be more of an evolution of rules than a revolution.
Baker officially began his tenure as NCAA president Wednesday, less than two months after finishing his second term as the governor of Massachusetts. He takes over as the head of an organization facing internal and external turmoil as it tries to find new footing amid mounting attacks on its business model. The main question facing the new president and the nearly 1,100 member schools he now leads is whether they have enough time to evolve or if outside forces will move faster to upend what remains of the association's long-held tenet of amateurism.
"I think what's important for us is to make sure we control, to the extent that we can, our own destiny on this stuff," Baker told ESPN as he prepared for his first days in office. "To recognize and understand that means that we need to make some decisions and move a little more quickly than maybe we have in the past."
Baker said he hopes that by controlling its own destiny, the NCAA can avoid the "all or nothing" options for revamping the rules governing a group of athletic departments and conferences that range from Division III schools operating on tight budgets to those signing billion-dollar television deals to showcase athletes with million-dollar endorsement portfolios. He said the NCAA needs to more acutely acknowledge the gap between the very top tier of profit-generating teams and the vast majority of sports that operate in a more "traditional" collegiate model.
"It's [5,000] to 10,000 athletes at the Power 5 schools, and then it's all the rest of college sports. I don't think we can treat them both the same," Baker said. "My hope is we can figure out some way to bridge those two universes in a way that makes them both better instead of ending up in a situation where the whole thing comes tumbling down."
Baker said he has received roughly 100 calls from administrators, coaches and athletes since the NCAA announced in December that he would be taking over for outgoing president Mark Emmert. Many of them have focused on the unsettling impact that new rules allowing athletes to make money from the rights to their name, image and likeness have had on college sports. The majority of NIL activity has occurred at the most profitable end of college sports, further crystallizing the widening differences between the schools that fall under the NCAA's oversight.
Baker said the NCAA's decision to give the "autonomy five" conferences more power to govern themselves in 2014 was a move in the right direction but added that NIL rules have since made it more clear that "we need to acknowledge the differences and incorporate that into the way we structure our activities and the way we operate."
Some groups, including the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, have suggested in recent years that FBS football -- the largest generator of money in college sports -- should be spun off into its own operation. Baker said he believes there is room for all the sports currently under the NCAA's purview to remain and noted that he has worked with other complicated membership organizations with a wide spectrum of business models that successfully found common ground.
Baker, 66, played basketball at Harvard before starting a career in politics. He served as the CEO of a large healthcare company in Massachusetts for more than a decade starting in 1999 before being elected governor in 2014 and maintaining his seat with 67% of the vote in a 2018 election. Despite being a Republican governor in a predominantly Democratic state, Baker's approval ratings were regularly among the highest of any governor in the country.
NCAA leaders say Baker's political acumen was a big selling point during a time when the association is lobbying Congress to help solve some of its ongoing legal issues with federal legislation that supports the current business model of college sports.
"We all know that the challenges that we face are big, they're complex, and they're urgent," NCAA board chair Linda Livingstone said while announcing Baker's hire in December. "[The solutions] are going to take the ability to engage and motivate Congress, to enact legislation that helps us modernize our framework. ... When you consider the priorities that we have right now in the NCAA, it's hard to imagine a better fit than Governor Baker."
Baker said he already has had some conversations with members of Congress. He said his role will be to help explain to federal lawmakers some of the problems the NCAA is trying to solve and to take the feedback he receives on Capitol Hill and use it to shape ideas for change with the leaders of college sports.
Amateurism in college sports is facing legal challenges on at least three fronts that are expected to reach conclusions within the next few years. An antitrust lawsuit threatens to further limit the types of restriction that the NCAA can place on what schools provide to their athletes. There are also two different types of open cases that would give college athletes the rights of employees. Baker said he had several conversations during the interview process in which leaders recognized those threats would require an NCAA that was more nimble than it has been in the past.
"We have some clocks running," Baker said. "You talk about NIL, and it's moving pretty fast. You talk about some of these other issues we're dealing with, and it's moving pretty fast. That all by itself sets up a dynamic that I think people recognize we need to move more quickly, too."
He said he has yet to meet an athlete who wants to be an employee of his or her school but noted that finding ways to provide more benefits to athletes is an important conversation that needs to happen early in his presidency. Asked whether that conversation includes the potential for athletes at the top end of college sports to more directly share in the billions of dollars of revenue generated by television contracts, Baker said: "There's change coming. I'm going to leave it there."
Among the list of shorter-term priorities, Baker said he hopes to swiftly add some more transparency to the NIL marketplace, expand the mental health resources provided to athletes and put into place some of the recommendations made by a panel of NCAA members tasked with finding solutions to transform Division I governance in the past year.
The transformation committee recommended that Division I schools provide at least two years of medical coverage for athletes for care related to any injuries suffering during their college careers. The committee also recommended creating a fund to help athletes complete their degrees at any point within 10 years of finishing their playing career.
Baker said more accountability and transparency surrounding the size of NIL deals, the agency fees associated with deals and their tax implications would be another big step forward in creating more stability for athletes and their families. The NCAA set out to set up a third-party administrator to monitor NIL deals in 2021 but ultimately decided to nix the idea in part due to concerns about the potential that it could invite antitrust lawsuits. Baker said now that there is a real-world market to examine, it should be easier to find ways to help without running into liability issues.
Within the next 100 days, Baker said he hopes to speak with representatives from each of the nearly 100 conferences that comprise the NCAA. He said he hopes to understand whether their concerns are similar to what he has heard from the athletes and coaches that reached out to him and to try to find common threads among the many varied constituents he now leads.
"You lead by listening," he said. "... I've had a fair amount of success with that."