Charlie Baker has been NCAA president for less than two weeks, but he knows he is coming into his role in the governing body of major college sports during a tumultuous time.
Baker, most recently the governor of Massachusetts, said his friend Utah Sen. Mitt Romney described the transition from leader of a state to leader of a rule-making organization for student-athletes nationwide as “going from the frying pan and into the fire.”
“I don’t think the people who say it is going through a tumultuous time are exaggerating. I mean, that’s the reason I took the job,” said Baker in his first televised interview since replacing Mark Emmert on March 1. “I could have done a lot of other things that would be a lot easier.”
As NCAA president, Baker will oversee an organization for 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 rules on transgender athletes; gender equity; how student-athletes can profit from the use of their names, images and likeness (NIL) and transfers.
And he also told CNN why he thinks there’s so much excitement for March Madness.
“The fact that so many times the underdog wins, and the unpredictability and the competitive equity that seems to exist drives a big piece of that. As somebody who has witnessed major upsets in both the women’s and the men’s tournament over the years … I think that’s a big part of it,” Baker said. “You just don’t have that many places anymore, where it’s so obvious that no one knows who’s gonna win.”
Balancing inclusion and competitive equity is key, Baker says
With regard to transgender competition and how each individual sport’s governing body will decide on rules for women’s sports participation, Baker said it is important to balance two issues: inclusion and competitive equity.
“One of the reasons for following the national governing bodies and the international federations and the Olympic federations is you don’t want transgender athletes to have to play by different sets of rules at every step along the way in the process,” he said.
Baker said standards for who can compete should be based on science and it shouldn’t be a problem if different sports have different standards.
On swimmer Lia Thomas becoming the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I title last year, Baker said, “I think Lia Thomas sent a pretty loud signal to everybody that people needed to get all of their data and all their information and all their rules up to date on this issue, which in many cases, they weren’t at that time.”
Baker also spoke on questions of gender equity and the NCAA spending twice as much money on the men’s side of March Madness than the women’s side.
“We are investing… in a very significant way, but we have a ton of work left to do on this and it’s not just about basketball, it’s about volleyball and softball and a whole bunch of other championships as well,” he said.
Baker calls for accountability with NIL deals
NIL deals stem from an NCAA policy change in 2021 that allowed student-athletes to profit from sponsorship opportunities. As college sports raise billions of dollars from television contracts, ticket sales and merchandise, supporters of the students have said players are being exploited and barred from the opportunity to monetize their talents.
The deals, which reportedly can reach 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 topic, said Baker, a Republican who governed Massachusetts from January 2015 to January 2023.
“If states passed laws that say things like, and many of them are currently contemplating these, ‘whatever the NCAA rules are in NIL, they don’t apply in our state,’ that creates an issue where you put schools and conferences, many of which involve multiple states, in an impossible position,” he said.
“I think it’s incumbent on us to come up with a proposal that works in the absence of that [legislation], but I do think it will be harder to apply it to all 50 states if states passed laws that put schools in positions where they have to make a call.”
And Baker said the transfer portal, which allows student-athletes to transfer from one college to another and play while no longer having to sit out for a year, is “an important element” of to the evolving NIL situation.
“The two of them are related,” he told Wallace, who brought up the prospect of schools recruiting transfers who will be enticed by NIL possibilities. “I don’t think you can talk about one without talking about the other. … You can’t make progress on these things without acknowledging their issues and then figuring out a way to actually solve and deal with them.”
Baker added: “I don’t want people to forget that even in the big schools that show up on TV all the time – the vast majority of the kids who play in those sports are not going to go professional. And we need to make sure they graduate and that they graduate with a degree that they can actually make a life and a living with.”
Baker said he is worried with all the money (and betting) that surrounds the tournament and college sports in general.
“(Student athletes) are public figures in their world, the same way I was a public figure in mine,” the former governor said. “Now, I’m an old guy (66). I’ve been getting yelled at and screamed at for years by people for all kinds of reasons. I’m okay with that. … One student athlete told me about a teammate who just fell awkwardly on a playing field. Somebody filmed it and then posted it on social media and it had 15,000 comments and likes on it in a matter of hours.
“That’s with nothing that’s got the significance of a missed shot, a missed score, you give up the winning hoop or something when it comes to sports betting. So I worry a lot about what the impact of that is going to be. … I think that could be a real problem.”