Oct. 24, 2012
For those unaware, Old Dominion University has this thing call the President's Lecture Series and it brings in some rather mesmerizing individuals. In the past month alone, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black - he wrote the screenplay for the movie "Milk" - and sociobiologist/author Rebecca Costa have spoken.
So why would I show up for one of these lectures? Well, the answer was simple Tuesday night: There was a football guy in town.
He might not have ever played the game, but NCAA president Mark Emmert qualifies as a football guy. And a basketball guy. And a baseball-tennis-golf-rowing guy.
With over 1,100 member schools in the NCAA, he'll never make it to all those schools to speak. So it was definitely a feather in ODU's cap that he spoke at the Ted Constant Center Tuesday night. Over 700 filled into the Big Blue room to hear this guy who looked like he could easily throw on a baseball cap, pull on a sweatshirt and have a good time at your tailgate this Saturday. Heck, he might even slurp down some oysters with hot butter and Tabasco, seeing how Saturday's game between the Monarchs and Delaware is this year's Oyster Bowl Game at Foreman Field.
Emmert was a couple of things I didn't expect. He was candid, openly answering questions from the audience pertaining to his handling of the Penn State debacle in the past year. He was direct, stating that there are just too many rules in the NCAA code of conduct book that exists and that his organization has to get its hands around how to handle the expanding technology of the day. He was entertaining, telling a yarn about taking a professor from Sorbonne University in Paris to a Tennessee-LSU football game (I'll get to that later).
And he was historical, giving all in the room the spin on why the NCAA was formed back in the early 1900s after schools started competing in football and rules needed to be administered.
Still, what he was to me was thought provoking, particularly when he began down one avenue of thought. Or should that be le chemin (that's French for the road). Emmert explained just how American the concept of intercollegiate sports remains today. There is not tie-in between athletics and academics when you go outside the U.S.
Emmert has fielded plenty of calls in the two years since taking over as the NCAA's top dog on just that subject. There are those in Europe, Asia and Latin America starving for the recipe that is, as Emmert put it, "the secret sauce of American society and American education." International universities just aren't as good "at turning out students who are really good leaders with soft skills," Emmert said.
I had never heard the term "soft skills" before, but Emmert went on to explain that they are the skills Americans pick up from athletic competitions, be they T-ball games between 5-year-olds or college football games with young adults. They are the skills to interact as part of a team, to root for your comrade, to lead when you have to, be bold when you have to, to shine when you have to.
It's unique. And it's quite American.
It's also quite American to be a fan of college athletics. And that uniquely American trait, Emmert believes, is a good thing that bonds people in unique ways.
As Emmert pointed out, you can walk down a 100 streets in 100 towns in Europe without passing someone wearing a sweatshirt with a college or university on it, "but you can't walk 100 yards in the United States without passing someone wearing a school's sweatshirt."
Emmert is touring parts of the country to visit a variety of campuses over the next few weeks. His visit to ODU should not come as a surprise, for ODU president John Broderick and Emmert were working hand-in-hand last year when Broderick served on the NCAA President's Council. This morning, Emmert is headed to the Windy City to speak at the City Club of Chicago and will eventually make it later in the evening to the campus of DePaul University.
Emmert has been on the job now at the NCAA for two years. He gave up one dream job - he was president of his alma mater, the University of Washington - for another dream job. Prior to that, he was chancellor at Louisiana State University and prior to that he had worked at Connecticut, Montana State and Colorado. It's an impressive resume at schools that have competed at the highest levels of athletics. Oh, and did I mention he has both a master's degree and a Ph.D. from Syracuse? It all makes him uniquely qualified for the task at hand.
That task is the same it's been for the NCAA for over 100 years: to attempt to maintain a level of integrity within the ranks. And as Emmert pointed out, the public has a truly warped perspective of what college athletics is about. Average Joe tends to believe that the NCAA is about what people tuning in to watch the No. 5 Fighting Irish of Notre Dame vs. No. 8 Oklahoma Saturday night on ABC will see: a bedlam moment played out in a stadium filled with nearly 100,000 people.
But as Emmert pointed out, that scenario only plays out for about 25 schools throughout the nation, and there are over 1,100 member institutions in the NCAA. There is a skewed reality if people believe that game - or Georgia-Florida or Texas Tech-Kansas State - is really what the NCAA is about.
In reality, the NCAA is more about Bowdoin vs. Wesleyan or Albright vs. Widener.
Still, the best story Emmert told about "the concept" of what college athletics is all about and why foreign universities want what we have here involved a Tennessee-LSU football game.
Back in 2000 when he was chancellor at LSU, Emmert was entertaining a professor from College de Sorbonne. For those who aren't familiar with the school, it is one of the first universities in the world, founded in 1257.
It is, in many ways, the equivalent to our Harvard University.
The professor had never attended an American football game and here he was going to a night game in Baton Rouge, La.
Back in 1988, a night game at Tiger Stadium - known as Death Valley - had produced so much voluminous noise that it came to be known as the Earthquake Game; the fan noise caused a Richter Scale reading on a seismograph located in LSU's Howe-Russell Geoscience Complex, which is located about 300 yards from the stadium.
The Tennessee-LSU game didn't set off the seismograph, but it did go into overtime before LSU pulled out the win, 38-31.
Emmert had the crowd in the Constant Center's Big Blue Room chuckling as he told the story of introducing the French professor to college football and realizing there might not have been a sober individual in the house that night. There was definitely a communication gap between the two, for Emmert speaks very little French and had to bring along a professor from LSU's foreign languages department to act as interpreter. But no interpretation was necessary as the game ended and Emmert asked his guest how he liked the event.
"I want people at my university to scream `Go, Sorbonne, Go!' "
One thing was clear after hearing Emmert speak. The world still envies the United States in one aspect: college athletics.