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Scholars Reflect On The Legacy Of Former NCAA President Dr. Myles Brand

By Steve Dittmore, PhD

As just the fourth president in the history of the NCAA, Dr. Myles Brand led the association from 2003-09 prior to his passing from complications related to pancreatic cancer. His impact on all aspects of college athletics following less than six years of leadership, however, is profound, having implemented now-commonplace initiatives such as Academic Progress Rate (APR) and Graduation Success Rate (GSR). The legacy of his accomplishments are the focus of a new special issue of the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, the journal he helped start, titled, “The Myles Brand Era at the NCAA: A Tribute and Scholarly Review.” The journal is open access, so full text articles are available to anyone.

Brand’s unique approach to leading the NCAA differed from any other president, before or after him. He never lost his academic pedigree, remaining a scholar in all of his speeches, even as the enterprise he oversaw grew further into a full-fledged commercialized business. He opened the association to discourse, even critical voices, through a scholarly colloquium held in conjunction with the NCAA’s annual convention and the aforementioned Journal of Intercollegiate Sport. Unfortunately, the NCAA withdrew support from both endeavors in 2013 under current president Mark Emmert. Brand gave speeches and authored papers which reflected his classical philosophy training. Many of these, as well as his forward-thinking podcast, Mondays with Myles, are now archived at https://mylesbrand.com/, a site created in February 2021 by Dr. Peg Brand Weiser, Brand’s widow, a philosophy professor at the University of Arizona.

Following more than 30 years of marriage, Brand Weiser believed it important to create an archive of Brand’s speeches and papers, his “public-facing philosophy,” as she referred to it, for anyone to study. “I knew I was responsible for a legacy,” she told me. “He delivered a philosophy paper to try to convince an audience about an issue.”

That audience could be the NCAA’s board of directors or its 1,100 member institutional presidents, and those issues were not just about sports, but frequently crossed over into issues of justice, an area of importance Brand Weiser stressed as we talked. “Myles always wanted to be on the right side of social justice,” she said. 

As if to underscore that notion, she begins her essay with a 2008 quote from Brand which reads, “It is not a sign of weakness to follow the rules and act with respect for others; it is a sign of moral commitment.”

The idea of a special issue about Brand’s legacy was developed in July 2020 by the issue’s co-editors, Brand Weiser and Dr. R. Scott Kretchmar, a sport philosophy professor emeritus at Penn State University. In seeking contributions to this retrospective look at Brand’s impact, the editors were guided by the question, “What have we done – individually and collectively on behalf of student-athletes – in the aftermath of Myles Brand’s leadership?”

Eleven different essays seek to provide answers to that question. And while each essay offers unique perspectives, from his son’s personal recollection to an economist’s take on finances on sustainability, the ones which stood out to me were the essays reflecting on Brand’s view on academics and athletics’ integration within the university community.

Dr. Lou Matz of the University of the Pacific extends Brand’s philosophy on academic integration by proposing a major in Competitive Sport, complete with curriculum and learning objectives. Student-athletes who desire to work post-graduation in competitive sport, either as an athlete or a coach, are often forced to choose degree programs which do not align with their career goals; or worse, choose a degree based on its perceived rigor and its fit with practice schedules regardless of actual interest.

As Matz writes of Brand’s 2006 article, “The Role and Value of Intercollegiate Athletics in Universities” published in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, “Brand unwittingly planted the theoretical seeds in his article that warrant having (intercollegiate athletics) contribute directly to a new academic major and hence to better fulfill his desideratum that (intercollegiate athletics) be as central to the academic mission as possible.” 

Matz concluded Brand leveraged his experience as a faculty member and university president to “articulate a view of the educational value of (intercollegiate athletics) that faculty and the academy could embrace as part of the academic mission.”

Noted sports historian Dr. David K. Wiggins of George Mason University provides a thoughtful retrospective on Brand’s career and contributions, concluding the “humble, curious, and lover of knowledge” Brand was the “conscience of college sport.” Wiggins explores Brand’s commitment to areas of keen interest to today’s athletic administrators: academic integrity, diversity, and social justice. He was focused on increasing the number of men and women of color in leadership positions in college athletics, even testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives on the topic in 2007. Brand spoke to “the crucial role that university presidents played in identifying and hiring African Americans as head coaches in football,” Wiggins writes. Brand “made explicit that the NCAA could not mandate who was interviewed and ultimately hired as coaches in intercollegiate athletics. That power resided with member institutions, under the leadership of their presidents.”

He fought, mostly successfully, to eliminate the use of Native American imagery and mascots by member institutions. And it was under Brand’s leadership that the NCAA increased the number of core courses needed for Division I initial eligibility to 16. Wiggins writes the legacy of Brand’s tenure at the helm of the NCAA was “decidedly different than the organization’s other Presidents.”

The essay which in some ways best synthesizes Brand’s legacy was authored by University of Hartford president emeritus Dr. Walter Harrison, a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Harrison relies on his personal friendship with Brand (Harrison served on a number of NCAA committees including the Board of Directors between 2002-07) to meticulously and critically evaluate him along two leadership roles: academic reform and fiscal responsibility. 

Harrison recalls Brand coining the phrase “moral suasion” to refer to the position and whether or not he held the appropriate amount of pressure “to persuade presidents and institutions to do the right thing in providing fiscal responsibility and to improve student-athlete welfare.” 

Harrison cites the 2006 Presidential Task Force report Brand commissioned as evidence to Brand’s emphasis on fiscal responsibility. Titled “The Second Century Imperatives: Presidential Leadership – Institutional Accountability,” the report outlined some two dozen initiatives, most of which needed to be implemented by presidents and institutions. One such recommendation was for the NCAA to establish a confidential financial database that included all aspects of athletic budgets which could be shared across institutions. The report also called for the NCAA Board to regularly monitor athletic financing across divisions, but that was never implemented.

While Brand’s efforts at academic reform succeeded, Harrison claims, those aimed at fiscal responsibility largely failed, for three broad reasons. First, the potential antitrust implications of restricting spending, particularly on salaries. Second, local campuses, easily persuaded by boosters, boards, and deep-pocketed alumni, needed to be the catalyst for change, not the NCAA. And, third, 2007 was the year the college football playoff was established and the Big Ten sold its broadcast rights to Fox in a deal that would eventually birth the Big Ten Network.  

One of the more interesting statements from Harrison concerned his candidacy to succeed Brand. “After Myles’s death, I was one of the people who was a candidate to succeed him,” Harrison wrote. “During my interview with the search committee, I was asked to respond to the question of whether the NCAA should provide greater independence to conferences in matters concerning benefits to student-athletes. Within a year of being selected as Myles’s successor, Mark Emmert led an Association-wide vote to provide greater autonomy to the five most prosperous football conferences. The movement toward less control by the NCAA had begun.”

The timing of the special issue’s release, coinciding with NIL and other pressures on intercollegiate athletics, is accidental. However, as Kretchmar told me, the release serves to reinforce the model of “students first” that Brand sought to protect. 

“Part of the uniqueness of Myles Brand is that he was cut out of a different piece of cloth,” Kretchmar said. “Any time you have someone with a different background, a different skill set, a different perspective, you will get different results.

“He had been a college president, so he knew the business side of sports. But, he was an academic at heart.”

Reading these essays it is impossible not to be reminded of Brand’s advocacy for the mission of intercollegiate athletics and its ability to shape the educational lives of young men and women. It is equally difficult to read them and not be reminded how frequently that mission, at least for certain segments of the NCAA, is challenged. His ideal is at odds with the forces that view intercollegiate athletics as a means to increasing the visibility of an institution, even it means building lazy rivers and barber shops which cater to those same student-athletes whom Brand fought so hard to integrate into the campus.