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Inside The NCAA’s Congressional Push With The NCAA’s Tim Buckley

Guest Tim Buckley, NCAA
17:37 min watch


NCAA Senior Vice President of External Affairs Tim Buckley takes ADU’s Jason Belzer behind the scenes of the association’s efforts to lobby Congress for support across key issues such as NIL transparency and outcomes; the codification of health and wellness standards; the possibility of student-athletes being deemed employees; and the creation of a revenue-sharing model for athletics. Buckley: “We’re pulling every lever we possibly have available to us to address the challenges before us.”

Buckley also provides additional details of NCAA President Charlie Baker’s Project DI proposal and shares his perspective on what’s going right for the NCAA and college athletics.

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

  • - From your perspective, what does the NCAA do that actually works really well and that moves college athletics forward in a positive way?
  • - Are there misconceptions from the public about what the NCAA does on a day-to-day basis?
  • - Why aren't people more aware of these positive changes?
  • - Through all of the changes happening in the landscape, there has been a push by the NCAA for Congressional intervention. What is the NCAA looking for from Congress and where are we at in that process right now?
  • - How do you navigate the complicated political landscape in Congress right now?
  • - How is the NCAA preparing for the potential of a revenue-sharing model for athletics?
  • - Is there a movement towards finding ways to generate additional revenue in order to make a revenue-sharing model possible?
  • - You are an outsider to the world of college athletics; having worked here for the past year, what has surprised you the most? If there is anything you could easily change, what would it be?

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 Tim Buckley, Senior Vice President of the NCAA, and somebody that has joined this organization and this industry from the world of politics, and so can hopefully provide us with a very unique perspective. So to start, there is a lot of noise around college athletics right now. There are a lot of talking heads criticizing the NCAA for the way that it has approached, many of the decisions that have been made, decisions that were made long before you or Charlie Baker got here. What I would love to hear is from your perspective, especially coming in from the outside, what is it that the NCAA does that you see that actually works really well and that is moving college athletics forward in a really positive way that so many people just miss with all the noise that we hear right now?

Tim Buckley (NCAA): Sure. Thanks for having me. Appreciate it. That’s a good question. I think something that people may miss in the noise is the incredible service that the NCAA does provide to all 500,000 student-athletes and it comes in a variety of different ways. I think sometimes we take for granted that championship experience. When an event is run flawlessly, you don’t think that the event was run flawlessley.You think about what happened in the event and that’s the whole idea. So the championship experience at all three divisions across all sports, I think is something that we should all be very proud of. Members come together to host these events, NCAA staff move mountains to send teams and athletes all over the country at a moment’s notice and they all happen and they have been well. The feedback that we get from student-athletes about the experience they have on the ground there is incredible. I think amidst all the noise we should go back and we should listen to those student-athletes and listen to that feedback because it is something everyone should be very proud of, not just here at the NCAA, but across all the membership that also chips in and plays a part in doing all of that.

Belzer: Are there other misconceptions that you think the public at large has about what the NCAA does on a day-to-day basis?

Buckley: Yeah, I think so. The number one thing people may not recognize is that just in the last 12 months alone significant change has come to the association and enormously positive change is happening here – positive change that is directly impacting student-athletes. The holistic model that was passed into bylaws by the DI Board of Directors about nine months ago guarantees health care access, mental health support services, scholarships that can’t be taken away, extra time for student-athletes to finish their degree, if they decide to go chase something else, like go pro in their sport, they can come back and they can they can get a degree no matter what. A lot of people don’t know that those positive changes have taken place at the NCAA.

Belzer: And why is that? Why aren’t people more aware of that? I mean it seems to be from a public relations standpoint that this is an opportune time or is it just that it’s not an interesting topic?

Buckley: We’re making some progress there. We’re doing our best to get that message out there. I think if you take a look at some of the TV spots that some of our conferences are running during regular season games, we’ve seen some of the conference’s actually pick up on this messaging, and they’re promoting those aspects of the holistic model. We’d like to see more of it and we’re going to do some of that too, going forward.

Belzer: So let’s shift a little bit. Obviously, the NCAA is going through a tremendous amount of change. There could be even more significant change on the horizon and there has been a push by the NCAA for congressional intervention. The reality is that the system has maybe become too complicated and the outside forces and the court system is putting pressure on the NCAA to be able to make decisions themselves or need assistance. So what I would love for you to do is to lead us through what it is that the NCAA is looking for from Congress? Where is that right now? How are those conversations happening?

Buckley: Well, the first thing we like to tell folks, and especially lawmakers in Washington, DC, is we like to walk them through the ways that the association is using every resource available to the association to tackle the challenges that are before us. I worked in state government for eight years. I’ve worked with elected officials for almost my entire career. The pressures on those offices are significant. If you look at what our members of Congress are facing on a given day, college sports is understandably not at the top of that list. So you need to demonstrate that and, I believe this is true, that the association is employing every single, we’re pulling every lever we possibly have available to us to address the challenges before us. We passed the holistic model benefits into bylaws – those healthcare, mental health support and scholarship support I mentioned. We’re advancing NIL bylaws right now that would bring some order to the chaotic environment, but there are some things the NCAA just cannot change alone. Those are what we’d like to work with Congress on. Specifically, we’re making those changes to the health and wellbeing bylaws, but we understand it’s a priority for Congress to potentially enshrine those into law, we’re all in on that conversation. The second thing is improving outcomes for student-athletes when it comes to name, image and likeness. Right now, there are 30 different state laws. The NCAA can’t do anything about that, only Congress can. And some of those state laws are actually more restrictive than current NCAA policy, we don’t think that’s a good thing. So we’d like to bring some order to the NIL world by working with Congress on some of the things we just can’t do ourselves, like changing state laws. The other thing we’d like to work with Congress on – just about everybody agrees we need some basic rules around competition and eligibility. Right now, when some of those rules are put in place, they’re challenged, we’re taken to court, weekly over some of these things. We can’t do anything about that on our own, but by working with Congress, we can empower the association and conferences to set reasonable rules around eligibility and fair competition. And lastly, we want to ensure that student-athletes from all three divisions, from all over the country, continue to have access to the collegiate sport opportunities that exist today. We want to do that by ensuring that student-athletes are not deemed employees of their institutions. The impact of doing so would be highly disruptive for all of DIII, all of the DII, and almost all of DI and we agree with the student-athlete leadership from all three divisions on this one. They’re on the record opposing employment, we’re all in on that we want to work with Congress to make it happen.

Belzer: Thank you for that and there’s a lot. We know as citizens of the United States that it seems like Congress can’t even tie their own shoes, much less figure out how to fix college sports or fix a lot of issues that we’re dealing with. Does it make sense to go to them with something that is far more narrowly tailored? And then most recently, as of the recording of this, I believe that it seems like Congress is close to maybe making something happen but now there’s a debate about whether or not it sits within education or commerce and who’s going to oversee it. Obviously, the Democrats have a different perspective than the Republicans. That’s where your political experience and of course Charlie’s comes in, is how do you navigate that?

Buckley: It’s difficult. College Sports is unlike anything else in America. It’s nothing like a professional league. We have 1,100 members that look wildly different from one side of the association to the other. Your professional leagues are made up of three dozen organizations. That’s it, it’s rather straightforward. College Sports is truly unique and so when you’re working with such a truly unique and diverse set of challenges and organizations, it’s going to be hard, but we do have buy-in from members from both sides of the aisle. How exactly we get that stuff done is going to be the challenge, but we have their attention. They’re taking our issue seriously, which are really the first two challenges to getting anything done in a legislative body. So the first two are down. Reaching consensus on the how, it’s going to take some time, but we have a very effective piece of legislation from Senator Cruz, an important member of an important committee to our issue, and we have a very interesting piece of legislation co-authored by Senators Booker, Blumenthal and Moran, also members of an important committee for us. There are positive elements of both bills and we believe that the path to getting something done here is a compromise piece of legislation among the elements in those two pieces of legislation that are on the table now and that’s doable. It’s absolutely doable because the fact that you have senators out there, talking about our issues and putting forward legislation is half the battle. If we can work with all the parties on our side of the fence here on the association side and work with members of Congress, I believe a compromise piece of legislation is possible.

Belzer: So let’s talk a bit about that legislation. So Senator Cruz, I believe his legislation has a safe harbor provision that would not allow student-athletes to become employees, which I think generally is the consensus of we need something like that. But even in such a situation, there’s going to be likely revenue sharing. I mean, we have NIL right now, which is essentially revenue share by another name and there may very well be collective bargaining, just not in the employment scenario. Is the NCAA preparing itself for that? Are you guys thinking through how this going to look? How’s this going to work? Because different states, different institutions, different amounts of resources, I mean, if we get the legislation passed, there’s a whole new headache to figure out.

Buckley: So the new president of the NCAA, Charlie Baker, has said that change is long overdue in college sports and I think just about everybody can agree with that. The other thing he says, when he talks about change being long overdue, the need to deliver more benefits to student-athletes is also long overdue. We’re beginning to do some of that with the holistic model, like I said earlier, but Charlie put out another proposal that would do far more than just the holistic model. It’s been referred to as Project DI. It would essentially permit schools to enter into name, image and likeness deals directly with student-athletes. It would permit schools to deliver enhanced educational benefit payments to student-athletes as well. We believe that doing those two things is the right move at this time to deliver those extra benefits to student-athletes and it does so in a way, we hope, in conjunction with working in Congress, that would ensure that student-athletes don’t get treated as employees and so we get the best of both worlds here is the idea. But it’s hard to do. We think it’s an important signal that the NCAA put forward this plan that Charlie did to show that there is a way to do this. There is a way to deliver more benefits to the student-athletes and do it in a way that keeps intact that opportunity for Division III, II and all of I who may not be in a position financially, to do the same thing.

Belzer: So it’s interesting that you bring up finances, because at the end of the day, if we move towards a model where there is a direct revenue share with the student-athletes, that just means that institutions are going to have to come up with even more money and they’re gonna have to generate more revenue. Is the NCAA thinking about that from that perspective about how can we enhance what we’re doing with institutions? Obviously, you guys just negotiated a new television rights package. Charlie has spoken about this analytics model of trying to figure out who the fans are. Is there a movement towards, ‘Hey we realize that we have to figure out how to continue to generate money,’ and then the reality is that some of that may end eventually be shared with the students.

Buckley: Well, I think there’s a recognition that the NCAA needs to be good stewards of the finances around college sports in order to continue to redistribute that funding back to the colleges and universities so they can continue to reinvest in their programs, and they can continue to offer scholarships and all the opportunity that comes with playing college sports. College sports represents just about one of the biggest, higher educational aid programs in the country. The only thing near it is federal programming. That’s truly an amazing thing that we sometimes lose sight of, $3.8 billion in scholarship funding every single year is generated by college sports. Nothing close to that, except for the federal government’s work. Like I said, we have an obligation at the NCAA to be good stewards of the funding that’s generated through these media rights agreements, to make sure that that opportunity is redistributed back to the schools. Where we can modernize NCAA operations to generate more revenue to get it back into that cycle, Charlie is all in on that. Modernizing the database to reach more fans, increase exposure to student-athletes, is part of that. Negotiating a more effective media rights agreement with ESPN, again, increases exposure for student-athletes and really puts them on the platform that they deserve to be on, especially women’s sports, like women’s basketball is part of that effort. Also within the communications office this fall, we launched a social media pilot program. We invested about half a million dollars into six sports. Six sports that didn’t that don’t usually get the same amount of coverage that others do. It was women’s volleyball, FCS football Men’s and Women’s soccer in the fall. We invested this money last fall as a pilot program to figure out if we hire talent to do highlights, do behind the scenes programming online on-campus during practice, for example, can we drive viewership? Can we drive engagement? Can we drive followers? It was hugely successful and now the cool thing about this program is when we go to campuses and we hear from student-athletes and they see some of the talent that they saw on these social media platforms doing this programming, they’re excited to meet them. They’re excited to be a part of this. So it’s not just a revenue generator, it really is enhancing the student-athlete experience.

Belzer: I really appreciate the insight. I have one two-pronged question. You are an outsider to the NCAA, to the college athletics business. Having worked here for the last year, what has surprised you the most? And if there’s anything that you could change easily, if you could push the magic button and say, ‘Hey, I wish there was like this,’ what would it be?

Buckley: The biggest surprise, two actually. I’m from Boston, born and raised in New England, outside of Boston. I’m continually surprised by how welcoming and polite everyone around Indianapolis is. Seriously. You don’t even need to be from Indianapolis. It’s hard to get used to, in a good way. The other surprising thing is how similar college sports is to politics and government. I knew there was going to be some crossover. Thankfully, it’s been a pleasant surprise to see how much crossover there is. It feels a little bit like home and that’s a great thing. The thing I wish it could change, a year flew by honestly. I’d like to go back and tell myself to spend a little bit more time on campus. The first year flew by and I spent almost 90% of my time here or in our DC office, and I feel like I missed some pretty cool opportunities. So year two, year three, I’m going to carve out some time to do that.

Belzer: That’s some good advice for yourself. Thank you for joining us today. Very, very insightful conversation.

Buckley: Happy to be here. Thanks.