From Penn State to football’s playoff, from an enforcement restructuring to higher academic standards, Nathan Hatch’s leadership of the NCAA Division Board of Directors arrives at a turbulent time for college sports.
Wake Forest’s president since 2005, Hatch was elected board chairman last month. His term is two years.
“It’s a very interesting time on many fronts,” Hatch said during a recent phone interview. “I think overall in the last 20 years, college athletics is much more consistent in quality, much more focused on the well-being of student-athletes, has much more financial integrity.
“The whole process of certification that’s been going on for the last, almost 20 years, whereby institutions have peer reviews. It’s a process that has real teeth in it, has been an overall upgrading in the kind of standards of issues of racial and gender equity that have made overall college athletics much stronger.
“So I don’t think there was a golden age from which we’ve fallen. In fact, the further back you go, the more patent the corruption was. I can remember when I started teaching at Notre Dame in the mid-1970s, I can remember an All-American tight end, Ken McAfee, took a class from me, and he said when he was recruited, except for Notre Dame, every school he (visited during his recruitment) they would put bundles of cash in his hand.
“So I think in some ways we do have problems. But I think by and large they are ferreted out and changes are made.”
My interview with Hatch ended mere hours before North Carolina announced that the NCAA had found no rules violations connected to the school’s burgeoning academic scandal. So I was unable to ask him about the contradiction in how the NCAA treated Penn State and UNC.
Here are the remaining portions of the interview about NCAA policy:
QUESTION: So you don’t believe college athletics has lost its way.
ANSWER: “I’m pretty optimistic. I do think the competitive pressures always loom and will push people to win at all costs. But that’s the kind of discipline that institutions have to show.
“I (do) wish there was minor-league football. To some extent, I also wish players who didn’t want to go to college could go straight to the NBA. The NCAA would like that, but that’s something set by the NBA, largely influenced by the players association.
“I think if there’s a problem it’s that anyone who wants to play football seriously has to go to college (for three years). So in some cases I think you’re forcing people to go to college who don’t have necessarily the interest, disposition, and in some cases, probably ability. That’s an ongoing challenge.”
Q: Are you comfortable with how the Division I board and NCAA president Mark Emmert circumvented standard enforcement procedure to punish Penn State?
A: “The discussions with that were both with the executive committee, on which I sit, and the full Division I board. An overlapping group. There were probably 30 presidents and chancellors involved, and I think there was a strong sense, virtually universal, that it was the right thing to do. Something quick needed to be done.
“Certainly the thing could be studied forever, but the Freeh Report was about as comprehensive a report as one could imagine by an outside, very respected person and his staff, commissioned by Penn State itself. I do think Mark Emmert has consistently said this is an exception, that it doesn’t necessarily set precedent. I support what happened.”
Q: In October, the NCAA expects to adopt a new enforcement model that will entail harsher, more explicit sanctions. What is the philosophy behind this? Has the NCAA been inconsistent and lenient?
A: “I think several things are going on. There’s an attempt in the enforcement (division) to streamline things, to try to sort out, so there’s not so much attention to minutia and the so-called 1,000-page rulebook … and focus on what’s really important, the principles behind it. …
“But then for things where there has been serious institutional failure to try and set forth more explicitly what the penalties would be and to make them substantial enough to hopefully be deterrents. … There’s also going to be various panels so there also going to try to speed up the process, and I think all those things are good.”
Q: In 2016, academic standards for incoming freshmen will increase dramatically. The NCAA’s own data shows more than 40 percent of men’s basketball signees in 2009 would have fallen short of the new guidelines. Are the changes too drastic?