“Charlie Baker has demonstrated the type of results-oriented, bipartisan approach that we will need.”

Nicolaus Czarnecki/Pool
Gov. Charlie Baker will be the next president of the NCAA. Nicolaus Czarnecki/Pool

Maybe it’s the fact he’s the nation’s most popular governor as a Republican in one of the most liberal states. Maybe it’s his crisis leadership experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, his background as a private-sector CEO, or even his stated focus on solutions, not politics.

Maybe it was because he, too, was once a college athlete on the Harvard College men’s varsity basketball team, married another one, and is now a father to two former Division III college football players.

Or maybe the reasons the NCAA picked outgoing Gov. Charlie Baker to become its next president are, simply put, all of the above.

On March 1, Baker, 66, will succeed current NCAA president Mark Emmert, who is stepping down under a planned departure.

In announcing its next chief, NCAA officials seemingly drew on a variety of the many components of Baker’s resume, but especially his political background and his reputation as a bipartisan problem solver, as the organization continues to navigate legal challenges around student athlete compensation and other issues.

“Governor Baker has shown a remarkable ability to bridge divides and build bipartisan consensus, taking on complex challenges in innovative and effective ways,” Linda Livingstone, president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas and chair of the NCAA Board of Governors, who led the presidential search committee, said in a statement.

“As a former student-athlete himself, husband to a former college gymnast, and father to two former college football players, Governor Baker is deeply committed to our student-athletes and enhancing their collegiate experience,” Livingstone continued. “These skills and perspective will be invaluable as we work with policymakers to build a sustainable model for the future of college athletics.”

And that skillset appears to be valuable enough for the NCAA to part ways with its past tradition of hiring university presidents and athletic directors, thereby giving Baker an outsider status some say is needed for the association to meet this moment.

“It’s a great day for college athletics. It’s a great day for the NCAA,” Blake James, the athletic director of Boston College, told Boston.com on Thursday afternoon. “I commend the group that was identifying who our new leader was for finding someone who is outside the norm of who we are.

“We’re an association of institutions of higher education, so at a time when there are a number of challenges to bring someone in from the outside, who is a proven leader who understands the political landscape, I think was just a really a great move,” James added.

The NCAA’s current challenges

Baker is stepping into a role that will put him at the center of a number of pressing legal and legislative problems for intercollegiate athletics.

In June 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled the NCAA cannot prohibit modest education-related payments to student-athletes. The decision in NCAA v. Alston also seemingly left the door open for a direct court challenge to the NCAA’s longstanding and controversial ban on paying student athletes.

Soon after the decision, however, the NCAA began to allow athletes to profit off of their fame via endorsement deals and other money-making avenues through taking up a new name, image, and likeness, or NIL, policy.

But the NCAA is also facing a significant challenge through a federal lawsuit in Pennsylvania, in which a former Villanova player argues student athletes should be considered employees of their schools under provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act — and that the NCAA is a joint employer. Since it was filed in 2019, the lawsuit has grown to include other current and former college athletes as defendants.

A few other changes ricocheting through the NCAA include the Big Ten Conference’s historically lucrative media contract unveiled in August and recent conference realignment.

Backing Baker

In announcing its choice of Baker for the post Thursday, the NCAA alluded to the recent environment of turbulent change.

The association said recent “legal shifts” have “challenged the NCAA’s ability to serve as an effective national regulator for college athletics, resulting in an untenable patchwork of individual state laws.”

And in the job listing for the NCAA president position, published by search firm TurnkeyZRG, the NCAA also didn’t mince words: College athletics, the association said, is going through “a period of unprecedented change.”

“Some changes are coming from the legal system, while other changes may come from Washington D.C,” the post reads. “Certain changes are long overdue, while other changes could threaten the sustainability of the intercollegiate model. Some changes are market-driven, while still other changes derive from sports becoming big business. We are not the only industry experiencing such change.”

As such, the NCAA wanted someone who is “a once-in-a-generation, transformational leader” and who “who believes in education, believes in intercollegiate athletics, and believes in themselves: part navigator, part unifier, part visionary.

“Throughout the search process, Governor Baker’s history of successfully forging bipartisan solutions to complex problems stood out to the search committee as uniquely suited to the NCAA’s present needs,” the NCAA wrote.

An attached biography of Baker made mention of his consistent popularity while in office and touted a tenacity for teamwork along with the passage of the Student Opportunity Act in 2019, which ushered in historically high levels of funding into public school districts in Massachusetts, among other accomplishments.

The NCAA also highlighted Baker’s tenure as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, noting how the non-profit health benefits provider “went from the verge of bankruptcy to 24 consecutive profitable quarters and a reputation as one of America’s top healthcare plans” under his tenure.

“We know that to be successful, the NCAA president needs to possess the ability to balance competing priorities, inspire a shared vision, and create a broad sense of trust,” Grant Hill, an independent member of the NCAA Board of Governors and member of the presidential search committee, said in a statement. “As Governor of Massachusetts and a successful private sector CEO, Charlie Baker has demonstrated the type of results-oriented, bipartisan approach that we will need to bolster the well-being of student-athletes, realize the opportunities and overcome the challenges facing the NCAA.”

According to the job listing, the president of the NCAA, which boasts 500,000 student athletes, is charged with “driving the Association collectively further toward a more sustainable business and governance model for the future while retaining the Association’s mission and values.”

The posting made specific mention of the NCAA’s search for a “servant leader” — one who will “approach solutions inclusively, collegially, and innovatively.”

In a statement, Erin McDermott, Harvard’s athletic director, said Baker’s “dynamic leadership style reflects his background as a basketball player and teammate.

“Having a highly respected governor and former student-athlete at the helm will be inspiring for collegiate athletics – especially right now,” McDermott said. “We wish him well!”

James, a former athletic director of the University of Miami who became Boston College’s director in July, was openly enthusiastic about the news.

Though he only met Baker once, briefly, during his time on the job so far, he pointed to Baker’s own experience as a college athlete as a strength, and anticipated that experience, paired with Baker’s vision, will deliver a “big win for student athletes and the association overall.

“The fact that he’s someone who’s proven at making decisions when they need to be made — and that’s what that we need,” James said, when asked what about Baker’s leadership style he admires. “We need someone who’s going to go into this with a fresh look, but is going to know how to get things done.”


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