Emmert and the N.C.A.A.’s Board of Governors said they made a mutual decision for him to step aside next year as the top administrator in college sports.
The N.C.A.A., buffeted by an erosion of its influence, years of courtroom acrimony and widening calls for a reset of the college sports industry that it has lately struggled to govern, said Tuesday that its president, Mark Emmert, would step down by the middle of next year.
The decision, which the association characterized as part of a “mutual agreement” with Emmert, its leader since 2010, came less than a year after the group’s Board of Governors extended Emmert’s contract through 2025.
That choice, though, fueled widespread anger and frustration among administrators and executives who work in college sports, and left the board — largely made up of college presidents and chancellors, as well as a handful of outside figures, like a former United States defense secretary and a former head of American Express — to confront a hardening view that it was too detached from the challenges before the N.C.A.A.
“With the significant transitions underway within college sports, the timing of this decision provides the association with consistent leadership during the coming months plus the opportunity to consider what will be the future role of the president,” John J. DeGioia, the Georgetown University president who is also the N.C.A.A. board’s chairman, said in a statement on Tuesday. “It also allows for the selection and recruitment of the next president without disruption.”
Before the extension last spring, Emmert’s contract was scheduled to expire next year.
But in its announcement on Tuesday evening, the association said that Emmert, who led the University of Washington and Louisiana State University before he took over at the N.C.A.A., would remain in his post only “until a new president is selected and in place or until June 30, 2023.”
A spokeswoman said the association, the pre-eminent governing body in the United States’ multibillion-dollar college sports industry, had no comment on Tuesday beyond the four-paragraph statement it issued to announce Emmert’s exit. In that statement, Emmert, 69, said he was “extremely proud of the work of the association over the last 12 years.”
The last several years, though, have been especially stormy.
As the board extended Emmert’s contract last year, the N.C.A.A. was only beginning to grapple with the aftermath of a furor that erupted because of disparities between its signature Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Later in the year, a law firm commissioned by the association issued a damning report that concluded, among other findings, that the N.C.A.A.’s prioritization of Division I men’s basketball had helped to “create, normalize and perpetuate gender inequities.”
It was a blow to the N.C.A.A.’s reputation and to Emmert’s record. It was, though, only one severe blemish in a stretch full of them. In June, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling against the association in a case that dealt with its limits on benefits for student-athletes. Crucially for the association’s future, the ruling also made the N.C.A.A. more vulnerable to antitrust litigation, raising the specter of more legal battles for a group that has spent tens of millions of dollars defending itself in recent years.
Days later, the association bowed to political pressure — and an approaching crush of state laws defiantly designed to force its hand — and allowed players to begin making money off their fame through endorsement deals, social media and other agreements beyond universities. The N.C.A.A.’s pleas to lawmakers in Washington for a federal intervention remain unheeded, a sign of its diminished power in the capital and a symptom of the weakening public support for generations of rules that kept athletes from maximizing their economic potential (and that helped keep money flowing toward their schools and coaches).
By the end of last July, the N.C.A.A.’s board had decided it was time for the association to rewrite its constitution in an effort to maintain a modicum of relevance and, perhaps, to offer it a greater shield in the courts. Although a reimagined N.C.A.A. is still taking shape, the college sports industry is rapidly moving toward a landscape in which the Indianapolis-based association is more of an event organizer than a governing overlord.
Greg Sankey, one of Emmert’s rivals for sway and the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, perhaps the most influential league in college sports, has said the association “has to be reconsidered across the board.” A committee that Sankey is helping to lead is expected to issue recommendations later this year about how to change Division I, the most prominent and lucrative tier of N.C.A.A.-sponsored sports.
To an extent, Emmert, lofty title notwithstanding, has always been only so powerful. As Emmert, a political scientist by training, has long hastened to note, the association is a representative democracy, largely controlled by its roughly 1,100 member colleges and universities of various sizes, budgets and athletic ambitions. And his efforts to strengthen the N.C.A.A.’s reach and authority, like when the association moved to punish Penn State after a sexual abuse scandal, have sometimes faltered.
He has also been blamed for shortcomings, like the association’s legal strategy and its glacial response to calls for modernization. Up until Tuesday, though, the board had not signaled any plans for a leadership change, and Emmert had not openly offered any sense that an exit plan was in the immediate offing.
In an interview in January 2021, he had said his continued tenure would hinge on his belief, as well as the board’s, that he could “make a positive contribution and provide good leadership.”
“I like working,” he said then. “I enjoy doing this. Obviously, I’ve got my frustrations, but I have no interest in moving away from this anytime soon as long as I’m contributing and get to do something important for college athletics.”
The next challenge for the association will be finding Emmert’s replacement, who will assuredly be hard-pressed to unite a membership that seems to fracture more with every debate. The job is a well-compensated one — Emmert has made several million dollars a year, according to N.C.A.A. tax filings — but criticism is a guarantee of the gig.
And these days, in the wake of Emmert’s tenure, it will probably be hovering near the low point of its power and prestige.