NCAA president Baker addresses athletes at Franklin College

Charlie Baker is no stranger to the world of collegiate athletics. He played basketball at Harvard, his wife was a Northwestern gymnast and all three of his children competed at that level in either football or field hockey.

But when he took over as the president of the NCAA this March, Baker inherited a landscape very different than the ones he or his children roamed. The 67-year-old former governor of Massachusetts has spent much of this year surveying the scene, talking with conference commissioners, athletic directors and athletes to find out what he can about today’s most pressing issues.

On Wednesday evening, as part of a joint initiative between Franklin College and Leadership Johnson County, Baker came to Spurlock Center to answer questions from a few of the Grizzlies’ student-athletes.

Among the topics covered during Baker’s visit, either during the student Q&A portion or a brief chat with the Daily Journal afterward:

Division III: Pros and cons

Baker was asked about some of the biggest challenges facing Division III schools such as Franklin College. He noted his familiarity with smaller colleges — his sons both played D-III football — and said that there were three major issues being discussed by those he’s met with: rising costs (both for students and the schools), the difficulties in creating visibility and the struggles to maintain staff in certain areas. He cited sports information directors as one example, largely due to the large number of work hours involved in that type of role.

On the flip side, Baker pointed out the advantages of competing at a smaller school.

“Size creates comity,” he said. “It creates friendships, it creates community, it creates a much tighter sort of school environment generally. Usually a larger percentage of the kids that go to D-III schools play sports, so there’s more community in that. Everybody has a shared sense of why they’re there and what they’re hoping to get out of their athletic experience.”

Social media backlash

During the first few months of his tenure, Baker has heard several stories from athletes about how they were tormented on social media — usually from anonymous sources — after a poor performance in a big game.

“It was pretty ugly stuff,” he said.

Young athletes now are forced to deal with challenges that Baker’s generation never had to.

“You all are public figures in your world and on your campus,” Baker told the athletes gathered, “and therefore you are subject to some of the same BS that I was subject to when I was governor of Massachusetts. I’m a grown-up … I don’t care what people say about me on social media. I don’t care! It doesn’t matter. But I think it’s really tough to be a young person who’s getting noise — and vicious incoming, in some cases — from people they don’t know about the way they played, what they didn’t get right, what they look like and all the rest, and that’s an issue I’ve heard about across all three divisions.”

Baker says that the NCAA has started monitoring social media during NCAA championship events and has proposed legislation to protect athletes and officials — with potential penalties including a ban from online sports betting.

A little help?

Kinsey Price, a senior women’s soccer player who heads up Franklin College’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, asked Baker about how the NCAA plans to enhance the Division III athletic experience, and whether those plans include allowing athletic scholarships at the D-III level.

His solutions included trying to aggressively build the fan base, primarily by using analytics to find out who’s following each school and each sport and targeting those fans with content and also by seeking out local sponsors and more video streaming options for Division II and Division III championship events.

As for scholarships? That’s “ultimately a D-III issue,” Baker said, noting that school officials likely know more about that than he does. He has suggested cost-cutting initiatives, such as multiple schools purchasing equipment collectively, that could in turn lower the costs for students to attend those colleges.

Show us the money

Softball player Kennedy Bond brought up the topic of NIL (name, image and likeness) and how it applies to Division III athletes. Baker noted that NIL money is largely going to football and basketball players at the largest Division I schools and that, at least right now, there aren’t many opportunities available on that front for athletes in other sports, especially at the D-III level, because of the lower visibility. The best chance for small-college athletes to cash in, he said, would be through local sponsors.

Baker did add that NIL is still a very new frontier that will take shape over time, and “it may be that you guys are in too soon.”

Can’t call it

Shortages of officials have become a major issue in recent years at every level from college all the way down to youth sports. Baker pointed out that the average age of an NCAA official is 55 — which means that there aren’t many young ones. The issue hasn’t been getting younger officials, he said; it’s been keeping them. Not surprisingly, surveys of those officials showed that the biggest thing driving them away is behavior of coaches, fans and parents.

“The beatdown that a lot of these (young officials) were getting from a lot of people in the stands and along the sidelines was just enough to drive them away,” Baker said.

He proposed strategies to help retain new officials, including teaching strategies to deal with “bad actors” outside the lines.

Reining it in

When Baker was being introduced, it was mentioned that one of his top priorities as NCAA president is to create a more uniform set of regulations around NIL; right now, each state has its own set of rules. On Wednesday, he told the Daily Journal that the NCAA is currently building legislation in three parts: First, a piece involving athlete protection, one that he believes will be brought up and voted on in either December or January; second, one regulating institutional involvement in NIL; and third, one covering how NIL is used or not used in the recruiting process. Those last two, he says, will likely get figured out next spring.

As for government involvement, Congress isn’t yet taking up the issue, but Baker hinted that he’d like them to.

“There’s a lot of people in Washington who are very interested in this issue and are very up to speed on it — Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “The big question mark in my mind is, just given all the other stuff on their plate, is this going to be one of the things they get to or not? We’re going to continue to push, because I think at least getting state pre-emption and a few things to basically flatten the playing field, so that it’s the same set of rules everywhere, would make a really big difference.”

Protecting everybody

The Daily Journal also asked Baker about the escalating arms race across major college football and basketball, and whether the push to spend lavishly in those sports would in turn suffocate non-revenue sports such as soccer, swimming or tennis. He says he is worried about it, and that some strategies are being discussed that might head off disaster on that front.

In the end, though, it’s up to schools to spend more responsibly.

“We all have to figure out how to live within our budget,” Baker said.

The love of the game

In his parting words, Baker tried to urge the athletes to take full advantage of the “unique opportunity” that they have to play collegiate sports. He spoke about the benefits that will carry over after graduation — how companies look to hire college athletes because sports have taught them how to work with others, listen, ask questions, solve problems and deal with adversity.

Mostly, though, it’s a moment in time that goes by far too quickly; Baker has continued to play basketball in rec leagues over the years, but “it was just never the same.”

“I can’t overstate how important it is that you appreciate this opportunity,” he said, “because not everybody gets it.”