Robert M. Gates, the former defense secretary, agreed this summer to lead a committee to rewrite the constitution of the perpetually embattled N.C.A.A.
In an interview with The New York Times, his first with a news organization as the committee’s chairman, Gates spoke at length about the problems he sees with the N.C.A.A., the changes he imagines making and why, at 77, he is willing to take on one of the most complex bureaucracies in sports.
Here are excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity and length.
Given that the N.C.A.A. has waning influence and a mission that can seem cloudy, why did you agree to lead this committee?
I guess I would say because when I was a university president, I saw sort of the good, the bad and the ugly about the N.C.A.A. It seemed to me that it was, and is still, a very necessary institution, but one that is widely perceived as broken and as incapable of serious change and adaptation to a new era. And I thought I might be able to help.
What was your view of the N.C.A.A. when you were Texas A&M’s president?
My major concern with the N.C.A.A. was, particularly with respect to compliance and the rule book, that it was so far down into the weeds and to a level of specificity that it was almost ridiculous. The rule book was like the tax code: No way you could not be in violation of something at some time.
You know, God figured out how to give the rules to all mankind in 10 declarative sentences. You’d think that the N.C.A.A. could figure out how to do intercollegiate sports in something short of several hundred pages.
I was wondering which you found more daunting: the N.C.A.A.’s organizational chart or the Pentagon’s.
Well, they’re comparable — and incomprehensible. They look like an AT&T wiring diagram.
You left Texas A&M in 2006. Now that you’re back around college athletics, what’s your diagnosis?
There are a couple of major points.
The first is that both Divisions II and III actually feel like things are working pretty well for them. But the second is kind of an overriding sense that one size doesn’t fit all, that there has to be more room for differentiation and for taking into account the different resources, ambitions, opportunities and so on of the wide variety of institutions that are members of the N.C.A.A.
I think one of our objectives has to be, How do we create a constitution that makes the N.C.A.A. significantly more flexible in terms of a very rapidly changing environment in intercollegiate sports?
The N.C.A.A. has a time-honored tradition of meetings and committees. Why should we believe that your committee will be able to push something through by January?
My experience in leading change at very big institutions is that the longer you take, the more difficult being successful is going to be. If things are protracted, people just get wrapped around the axle in terms of their positions. If you want to bring change, you need tight deadlines. First of all, it sends the message this is important and change is urgent, and, second, it forces everybody to focus.
Is there a change you think the association absolutely must make?
One significant area will be a devolution of authority and responsibility in several different areas to the divisions, to give them more independence and more flexibility to deal with the problems they’re dealing with every day.
To the divisions, not the conferences? You still see the division structure as being the core here?
Yeah, I think so.
One of the things that everybody believes is broken is the enforcement process. And so one of the things we’re going to be looking at is, How do you change the way we’re dealing with enforcement to get much faster decisions and greater consistency? There may be a greater role both for the divisions and the conferences in that.
Is there a red line for you?
The first thing we have to do is be mindful, above all, not to do harm, not to screw things up. And that’s one of the reasons for the broad outreach and for getting the views of a lot of people. This is what I’ve done in all of those different leadership positions I’ve had — tried to make the process as inclusive and as transparent as possible so that nobody at the end gets a big surprise.
Particularly when it comes to doing no harm, that applies to everybody — but we also need to be very careful not to do anything that impacts Divisions II and III, which are generally pretty content with things.
One of the things that’s down in the weeds — but is incredibly important to those divisions — that’s in the current constitution that I think will have to be in the new constitution is the very specific allocation of resources to Divisions II and III.
We spend a lot of time talking about the Power 5 conferences. But you’ve obviously got the rest of the Football Bowl Subdivision, the whole of the Football Championship Subdivision and Divisions II and III that have some thoughts on the new constitution.
Not only do they have thoughts, they have two-thirds of the votes. We cannot have a vote in January that is just Divisions II and III. We have to have the support for these changes from Division I, and it’s not just because of the revenues; it’s because of the size of schools, the number of student-athletes who are involved, everything.
The Power 5 seem restive on a good day. Do you think constitutional changes can calm them down?
If Division I has more freedom to reorganize itself, my hope would be that that would address some of the concerns and the restiveness among the Power 5.
Do you see yourself as a stabilizing force here?
I think there may be some people in this process who see me as a destabilizing force.
I am a strong believer that we need to come up with really significant, meaningful change. I’ve said from the very beginning, I don’t want any part of a process that’s going to tinker at the margins. I would hope that when we put something forward, there will be observers who say, “Wow, I didn’t think they could do that.” We’ll see.
I don’t want to be associated with something that is going to be seen as bringing forth a mouse.
A lot of fans don’t know that the N.C.A.A. has a constitution. They also don’t know about your committee, nor do they really care about it. How can your committee have any effect on how the association is perceived?
Only over the long term. You get a bad reputation over a long period of time, and you can’t turn it around overnight. And I think the key will be, if you want to begin an upturn in perceptions, it starts with the product that we produce and if we get it approved by the association in January. And then over time, people begin to see constructive change. And, first of all, they begin to hear less complaining from members of the association, and then you manage to avoid some of the highly publicized cases where people think that the N.C.A.A. screwed up. And then maybe you also, over time, begin to show enough progress or forward movement that you begin to be able to persuade state legislatures and even members of Congress that we’re headed in the right direction.
There are a number of people who think this is essentially an effort to appease the statehouses and the courts.
Well, my experience over a long period of time is that appeasing legislators is a very challenging task. At least from my standpoint, this is not about politics; it’s about how you fix the freaking organization.
Do you understand the skepticism from people in college sports?
Sure, especially given the history of the association. The only way we can demonstrate that this endeavor has been different is by actually producing something of real consequence.
I’ve heard you talk about the need for a more nimble, speedy, responsive N.C.A.A.
One of my lines is that the words “nimble” and “N.C.A.A.” have never appeared in the same sentence before.
Do you see that as the top-line objective — just trying to make a more responsive system?
Yeah, but I think there’s a need for a change in governance. I think there’s a need for a change of structure.
But you expect at day’s end that there will still be three divisions?
I don’t know the answer to that. I suspect that we will have at least three divisions.
At least three? Could you see a fourth?
Well, let’s just suppose — now I’m getting into a hypothetical, which I almost certainly should not — but let’s suppose you give each of the three divisions the autonomy and the authority to structure itself as it sees fit. That’s how you might end up with more than three.
It feels as if this is a bit of a whip-count operation here, trying to figure out where the votes are going to come from.
I guess I wish I had a secret constitutional draft in my desk drawer that I was going to spring on people at some point, but I don’t. I have no idea what’s going to happen, and nobody else does. There is a lot of suspicion that this thing has already been baked, and the answer is it’s totally not. I have no idea where this is going to come out, even though I have some ideas where I think it ought to come out. And we’ll just see.