NCAA Football

NCAA President Mark Emmert Has ‘Very Mixed Emotions’ About Ending Term

INDIANAPOLIS – Outgoing NCAA president Mark Emmert said Wednesday night that he has “very mixed feelings” about ending his 12-year tenure as the college sports industry and its leaders are in the midst of trying to sort through a flurry of potentially existential questions.

Emmert, who will officially step down from his post as the association’s top executive at the end of February, was the first witness called Wednesday in a civil trial to determine whether the NCAA bears legal responsibility for the death of a former Division II quarterback who suffered a concussion while playing college football. It’s the second concussion-related lawsuit before the NCAA in the past three months, and one of several ongoing legal issues that have made Emmert and the association regular visitors to courtrooms during the end of his NCAA presidency.

The NCAA also faces a series of legal challenges aimed at making college athletes employees of its schools or giving them other opportunities to share in more of the profits they help generate.

“I look at all these challenges and complexities, and I’m going to miss that,” Emmert told ESPN. “I like them, and I’d love to be the one to help sort them out. On the other hand, I think it’s the right time to make a change.”

The NCAA announced earlier this month that former Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker would take Emmert’s position starting in March. Emmert said he played no role in selecting his successor, but that he was “delighted” that the NCAA board hired Baker.

Baker recently finished an eight-year term as governor, and Emmert said he has given Baker some time to recharge instead of trying to work with him to ease the transition of leadership. He said Baker’s political acumen will be an important asset to the association at a time when it is asking Congress to help resolve some of its legal issues.

“It’s critically important,” Emmert said. “I’m sure that’s part of what the board loved about him. He will very well be able to move in that world.”

NCAA board members have publicly asked Congress to create federal laws that clearly state athletes are not employees of their schools and also provide an antitrust exemption that would allow NCAA members to regulate the evolving marketplace of endorsement deals , which has reshaped the economics of college sports for the past two years.

Emmert said turning to Congress was a “last resort.” He believes that even if some form of NCAA rules had been enacted years ago to regulate the market for name, image and likeness endorsements would have put college sports in a better position than where it is now. there was no way he or the association could have avoided the need to turn to Capitol Hill for help.

“It was inevitable,” he said.

Wednesday’s court appearance marked what will likely be the last time Emmert is forced to testify under oath about the NCAA’s responsibility for the health of its athletes. He told the jury in Indianapolis that the association has a “moral obligation” to support the health and well-being of college athletes, but that the NCAA was not legally responsible for any injuries athletes suffer while playing school sports.

The suit was filed by the widow of Cullen Finnerty, who won three national championships and 51 total games as the starting quarterback at Grand Valley State University in the early 2000s. Finnerty died in May 2013 aged 30 after disappearing on a fishing trip with his wife’s family.

Attorneys for Finnerty’s widow argued that the NCAA has known about the potential long-term brain damage that can result from concussions and minor head concussions since the 1930s, and said the organization failed a duty to its athletes by failing to warn them about these dangers. They say Finnerty developed an addiction to opioid painkillers and other health problems due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE — a degenerative brain disease linked to concussions.

NCAA lawyers said in their opening arguments Wednesday that Finnerty’s death was unrelated to his time as a college football player and that individual schools — rather than the NCAA — are responsible for medical treatment for athletes.

The NCAA won a similar lawsuit filed by the widow of former USC linebacker Matthew Gee in November 2022. The organization under Emmert’s watch also agreed to spend $75 million to settle a concussion lawsuit. This money is used for a medical monitoring program for athletes and concussion-related research.

If the NCAA is found legally liable for the long-term effects of head injuries that occur during college sports competition, it could pose a significant financial threat to the association. The NFL, by comparison, has paid nearly $1 billion to former players or their families to settle similar head injury claims in recent years.

Emmert declined to answer questions about the current case or the extent of the threat a concussion case poses to the NCAA.

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