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Addressing Industry Challenges With The NCAA’s Kevin Lennon

Guest Kevin Lennon, NCAA
19:12 min watch


NCAA Senior Vice President of Policy and Governance Kevin Lennon sits down with ADU’s Jason Belzer to discuss the ongoing challenges and opportunities for the NCAA, tapping into his deep institutional knowledge of the organization to reflect on the current, complicated landscape of intercollegiate athletics. Lennon and Belzer discuss organizational structure and change management; issues around student-athlete employment; efforts by the membership to lobby Congress for support; and the recent efforts by the SEC and Big Ten conferences to provide leadership related to the rapid rate of change across Division I.

The conversation is indexed below for efficient viewing (click the time stamp to jump to a specific question/topic).

  • - You've been in your new role as head of policy and governance for the NCAA for six months. How have you transitioned into the new role and what have you been doing on a day-to-day basis?
  • - You have more institutional knowledge of how the NCAA works than any human on the planet. What does it take to change the NCAA?
  • - How do you get everybody on one page to move forward? What does it take to steer the ship that is the NCAA?
  • - How often are your constituents coming to you for help navigating issues such as student-athletes as employees? Are you helping them connect with their Congresspeople to ask for support?
  • - How are you approaching the task of moving the organization forward and how do you ensure everyone on your team stays focused regardless of some of the obstacles that come into the way?
  • - In a perfect scenario, what should the NCAA look like in five years?
  • - What's your opinion on the Big Ten and the SEC having discussions about going and doing their own thing? Would that look different from what they're doing now under the NCAA?
  • - Can the association move forward without worrying about what the Big Ten and SEC may do at some point?
  • - If you could go back to any point in your career and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it have been and when would it have been?

A full transcript of the conversation is below.


Jason Belzer (Athletic Director U): I’m Jason Belzer, for AthleticDirectorU, and I am joined today by Kevin Lennon, Senior Vice President of the NCAA, and the longest tenured staff member at the NCAA. So you have seen it all. So we’re gonna, we’re gonna ask some deep questions, go into the closets here, but you’ve been in your new role for the last six months as policy head of policy and governance for the NCAA. What has it been like? I mean, obviously, you’ve been here from the beginning and you’ve seen it all. These last six months have been somewhat active for the NCAA. How have you been able to transition into your routine role? And what is it that you’re doing on a day-to-day basis right now?

Kevin Lennon (NCAA): Well, I appreciate being with you, Jason today. Yes, it has been quite a career at the NCAA and, obviously, the last six months, when President Charlie Baker came in and asked me to serve him in this position, serve the association, it was largely to be, kind of, his strategic advisor and help him advance the policies that he wants to advance. He also said it was going to be really important that we make sure that our staff is coordinated and that we collaborate appropriately to help our membership make the most informed decisions, so I spend my time in those areas. I think he largely put me in this spot because I have a history with the issues and a history with the people both in the building and outside the building. It’s been an exciting time the last six months and I’m looking forward to talking to you about some of the challenges and opportunities we have in front of us.

Belzer: So when Charlie put you in your position, he said that you have what it takes to be able to change the NCAA and I think he was referring to the fact that you have perhaps more institutional knowledge about how this organization works than any human being on the planet. So the question is simple, what does it take to change the NCAA?

Lennon: First of all, to acknowledge that it has been a part of a lot of change and this NCAA is a membership organization that has made a lot of change moving forward. I think about the academic reform initiatives, where we have more students graduating, Myles Brand bringing in the students-first philosophy, more recently, the transformation committee. So we are an organization, if you think about the last 30 years, that has made significant changes, whether we’ve gone far enough is the matter of conversation, and many people would think we need to go further and I think Charlie Baker and others in our membership agree with that as well. Change is complicated, but a little bit more complicated in light of court decisions that we’ve had, in light of the fact that we have state activities now that have entered the picture. So I guess I would just say the players in general have made this a little bit more complicated to make change moving forward. I think that’s probably one of the biggest challenges that we have right now is it’s a membership organization where our schools can vote on NCAA rules. That’s important, but we’re now at a point in time with the courts and with our states and others, where we have others who are interested in the outcomes of our decisions. So we’ve talked about shifting from a membership organization to like a public trust, where others care about what happens. That has complicated the ability to make change, but candidly with Charlie Baker’s leadership and the way he’s a problem solver in going at these issues, I think we’re well positioned to advance some of these further changes that are necessary.

Belzer: Kevin, you asked me just a few minutes ago before we started this interview what I do, and one of the things I didn’t mention is that I am a professor of organizational behavior at Rutgers and I teach young undergrad students and graduate students about how to run organizations. And the larger the organization, the more complex the organization is and when you have lots of constituents that adds complexity. The NCAA is a large organization, and it doesn’t turn on a dime. It takes time. There’s a lot of input that has to come in and you’ve mentioned that there’s been a lot of change that is occurring and that needs to happen. Now, the courts are coming in and asking questions. How do you navigate the ship that is the NCAA or help navigate the ship that is the NCAA? How do you get everybody on one page to be able to move forward? Charlie Baker brought forward this Project DI, which is the future, hopefully, of what college athletics looks like. What does it take to steer the ship? In a lot of ways what you describe and what you do on a day-to-day basis, it sort of reminds me of, I’ll use a political analogy, the whip – the person that’s supposed to get everybody together and figure out how do we get to where we need to go and that’s not always easy when you have 1000 member institutions.

Lennon: It isn’t easy and, candidly in the earlier days, I think there was more homogeneity around all of our institutions, whether they be in Divisions I, II, and III – the size of budgets, the way they operate – that has clearly changed and so that, to your point, has exacerbated a little bit of the problem. How within this big tent, if we were just to focus on Division I, where there’s so much disparity in budgets, their resources, other mission statements, how do you have them come together to do something that’s best for the whole? I think part of that answer then is we need to make sure that we’re allowing those who have the highest resources to make decisions in ways that are appropriate for them and so the more homogeneity you can get around the decisions, and if that means consolidating some of those around different sets of high resource institutions, I think you make better decisions moving forward with change. So that’s one way I would just think about it organizationally, but that’s all within our house and as we’ve mentioned, you got the congressional issue here. We need to have Congress involved in our work. As the employment issue continues to work its way to the courts, should student athletes be declared employees as by way of an example, you’re going to have Congress that will be the only entity that can come in and to help us with that. So that adds a different level of this complexity as well, this changing membership demographics and then this congressional piece and this need for outside influence. That’s why we have to have a skilled leader helping us move forward and fortunately, that’s what we have with Charlie Baker.

Belzer: So you talk about employment being an issue in which, without question Congress needs to step in, this is not something that the NCAA can solve for itself. How often are your constituents, universities or conferences coming to you and saying, ‘this is of utmost importance to us,’ or ‘how do we even begin to think about navigating these issues?’ Is that something that you say is within your house, helping them address these issues, helping them go to their own Congress people and senators and say, this is something that we need to figure out, because maybe it is an existential crisis for all of us?

Lennon: That’s one thing I can absolutely point to in the last year with Charlie Baker’s influence and Tim Buckley, who he’s brought in and Don Booth from our Washington, DC staff, we have mobilized our membership in a way at the congressional level in ways that I have not seen previously, and it’s good because they are articulating the main point number one, which is we do not need our student-athletes to be employees and that this would have a very negative impact. Across all of our divisions, I think they’ve been highly successful in articulating that as well as our student-athletes in that regard. Then there’s other asks that we have of Congress as well that they’re bringing forward – limited antitrust so that we can make some of the positive changes to enhance the student-athletes lives without continually being sued by previous groups of student-athletes, but the broader point there is I think our membership understands, there is a need for congressional involvement. Ten years ago, no one would have talked about that as something that we wanted to do or needed to do, but I think we have a much better recognition now, Jason, among our membership, that they’ve got to go to Congress and explain what we’re doing, who we’re about what college sports is about and particularly on this employment issue, I think they’ve been highly effective, as have our student-athletes, in getting that message across. That is a function that our office plays in helping organize that for our institutions, but they sure have done a great job of going out and sharing that message.

Belzer: So let’s talk a little bit of going back about you spending your day-to-day and again, the NCAA is being bombarded with lawsuits, dealing with all kinds of issues, is a lot of what you have to do to move the organization forward, move the constituents forward, is a lot of it triage because you make a decision, and then the court comes in and says, ‘Well, you can’t do that anymore.’? To that end and I would really love to explore this is, as an organizational leader, you have to be able to motivate your employees. You have to make sure that they feel as though what they’re doing is meaningful and important. I think what most people don’t think about is they’ll just say, as an example, enforcement has a job, they’re supposed to go out and do these things, they’re enforcing the rules and then the court comes in and says, ‘Well, maybe you can’t do that anymore.’ Those individuals now may feel like, ‘What was the point of all this?’ So I’d love to hear again, one, how are you approaching moving the organization forward with everything that’s happening here? But also, how do you ensure that everybody stays focused, regardless of some of the obstacles that seem to be coming into the way as of late?

Lennon: Yeah it’s a great point. So, one thing that’s important to know is that the NCAA is a national office, we only do what our membership wants us to do. So people say, ‘Well, why aren’t you involved in conference realignment?’ Those are decisions that our schools have said, ‘We want to make those decisions independent of the NCAA.’ So the entire landscape, and you mentioned enforcement specifically, really is dictated by what our membership wants us to do. That gets challenged when you have courts, to your point, who have come in and said, ‘No, we’re now going to tell you, to our ruling, what you can and cannot do beyond just your membership.’ Yes, that does create challenges on the staff. All of those individuals who are in regulatory affairs, anytime those things happen where some outside entity is saying you can no longer do what your membership has asked you to do creates enormous challenges for the staff and for our membership candidly. With that environment, you talked about how to move things forward, one of the things is that we need to get our act together within the association and we need to find out what it is that we want to do that we control, first and foremost, and take those actions, not only to better our student-athletes and our institutions, but also to demonstrate to Congress that we are about change. That’s the one thing I can just share with Charlie Baker’s leadership and what we’re seeing across our membership, there’s an acknowledgment that we need to change and we have a leader that is approaching these problems from a layered perspective of saying, what are the things that we can do as an association, we should do those things now. What we hope is that Congress has confidence, not only that we mean it because we do, but that we can actually self-govern and do this, but you build that and you build that trust by doing things. That’s where our efforts are really now, trying to build that consensus of where we need to be within our membership now, based on what we control, to demonstrate our commitment to moving this more sustainable model, moving forward.

Belzer: So I have a question. I think it’s a short question, but it’s actually quite complex. I’ll start off by asking, in a perfect world, perfect scenario, what do you believe the NCAA should look like in five years in college athletics?

Lennon: Well, I know that college athletics will continue to be important to young people, to the communities and to this country. I don’t think that that has changed at all. In fact, I think all indicators are that it’s more important than it has ever been for lots of people. I think that’s going to remain within five years. I think we’re going to continue to see our student-athletes receiving the benefits and the support to whether it’s the holistic model or other changes that are going to help improve their lives. I absolutely believe that within five months, so I think those elements will be right around there. What the NCAA’s role will be in all of that, and the conferences roles, and our campuses roles is what is evolving right now, but I do think there will always be a need for a national organization. You can’t have national competitions among highly competitive people, highly competitive schools without some set of national regulations, so that will exist. It’ll simply be where our membership, where Congress, where others want us to spend our time, where’s the most important things that are central to this collegiate model and that may cause some revaluations of things that we don’t need to be involved in. What are the core things we do need to be involved in, but I can assure you, Jason, there will be a core set of things that a national organization will be involved in because that’s what’s required among national competition in an NCAA type of environment.

Belzer: It’s so interesting, because there’s lots of talking heads out there now with social media and some people say, well, the NCAA shouldn’t exist and for the most part, a lot of those people don’t even know what the NCAA does half the time. As you just mentioned, if you’re going to have college athletics, you need somebody that’s putting the systems in place, that’s hosting the championships, that’s helping enforce the rules that the schools decide to come up with, however they may look. So it doesn’t even make sense to think about a world in which the NCAA doesn’t exist, perhaps were reformed in some capacity, but still exists. Yet, we have recently seen that, the Big 10 and SEC have said, well, maybe we should kind of go do our own thing and I would love to hear your opinion of that, and going and doing their own thing, would that look really different than what they’re doing now, under the NCAA, just by different rules?

Lennon: I begin with this – leadership is really important right now. We’re seeing that by what Charlie Baker’s bringing. I took that as the statement from the Big 10 and the SEC, in terms of the advisory group, this is an opportunity to provide some leadership at this critical point in time within our association, and so I applaud them for that. Their profile of those institutions, the platform that they have, puts them in a position of leadership and so I’m really encouraged that they’re taking these issues on directly in that regard. Their board members, we have board members across our presidents from our conferences – Big 10, SEC for example are represented on their board – and they are key members of working with our board and all other members of our board. They supported the holistic model that raised the boats and support for all of the institutions within Division I, not just the things that they’re doing. I continue to be encouraged that, particularly at our board level, all the presidents are thinking broadly about the good of the association moving forward, but I applaud the advisory group as well because they’re wanting to provide leadership at this important time. With Charlie Baker’s voice, we need good leaders. We have a difficult problem and that’s how I look at that group.

Belzer: Are you in some ways and is the association as a whole, in some ways beholden to those decisions? Are you sort of maybe even paralyzed until those decisions are made because that is the biggest issue? We spoke with Charlie earlier, and he mentioned there’s 1000 NCAA institutions, the issue is that maybe 5% or 6% or 7% of them are sort of the tail wagging the dog of the entire association. So, yes, the institutions that have the money are going to be the ones that are going to start making certain decisions, but can you move the association along without having to worry about what those institutions may or may not do at some point?

Lennon: Well, ultimately, our board of directors in Division I, which is broadly represented, will make the decisions about how to move forward, but they’re clearly going to be informed by these important leaders across all of our conferences. We’ve noted two conferences in particular that I think have a substantial leadership opportunity, as does really all the autonomy conferences and so that part doesn’t concern me. I think the key is that when someone puts forward a proposal and ideas, what I hope is that everyone can see something that is of value for them in those proposals, but also something that’s in value for the whole, because we have to be concerned about the whole of college athletics and what we’re doing to support all of our students. I think the commissioners, the presidents that I talk with are. Now they do have interests that they need to be attentive to, to begin with, absolutely, but we always step back and think about what’s going to be good for the whole. That is what I think part of what Charlie Baker’s role is in all of this, as well, is to make sure that we’re forging something that is sustainable for everyone, while still providing those with the highest level of resources to do what they need to do. People across our division, if we just use Division I, they need to see that this association is serving them and the minute people believe that the association isn’t serving their interests, that’s when you’ll have an alternative being considered. I happen to believe that there’s enough of a commitment that we’re better together, but that we do need to make changes in order to stay together and I think that’s where we find ourselves now.

Belzer: So I have one final question for you, Kevin. You have been here for a long time. If you can go back, at any point in your career, imagine you had a time machine to go back to any point in your career, and give yourself one piece of advice. What would it have been? And when would it have been?

Lennon: I think it may just be when you assess risk, to continue to evaluate the risk of doing nothing and valuing that and evaluating that with some of the other risk assessments that we have. That there’s risk in everything we do, I guess is the better way to state that and some of those may be taking some chances on some things because we could anticipate future problems. So it would be really pay a lot of attention to some of the risk assessment issues there and that may be the one piece of advice.

Belzer: I think that’s a great takeaway for leaders everywhere that inaction is action and you have to be conscious of the decisions that you make and the decisions that you choose not to make because they will have consequences. 

Lennon: I think that’s exactly right. Well said.

Belzer: Thank you so much, Kevin, for your time. Very insightful.

Lennon: Appreciate you too. Thank you for what you do.

Belzer: Of course.