Growing up in a Boston suburb in the 1960s, Charlie Baker learned his first political lesson — the art of listening to competing viewpoints — around the dinner table as his Democratic mother and Republican father hashed out the topics of the day.
There was a reason he was given two ears and one mouth, his mother would tell him.
It’s a story Baker repeatedly told as Massachusetts governor, and one that offers lessons for his job as president of the NCAA — the country’s largest college sports governing body overseeing some 500,000 athletes at more than 1,100 schools.
Earlier this month, the 6-foot-6 former Harvard basketball player outlined a vision for a new NCAA subdivision at the very top of college sports in a letter he sent to the more than 350 Division I schools. It was an attempt in part to grapple with one of the diciest issues facing the NCAA — how best to compensate college athletes.
Baker said his proposal would require schools that want to be a part of the new tier to commit to paying athletes tens of thousands of dollars per year through a trust fund. He also suggested all Division I schools bring name, image and likeness compensation for their athletes in-house through group licensing and remove limits on educational benefits schools can provide their players
“Some people are going to say you’re going too far and people will say but you’re not going far enough,” Baker said.
It’s part of a larger effort by the 67-year-old to help persuade lawmakers in Washington that the NCAA is trying to get ahead of its legal troubles as they face antitrust challenges that could usher in a new reality where some athletes are treated like paid employees. Coming to terms with that future is one reason the NCAA hired Baker.
Linda Livingstone, president of Baylor University and chair of NCAA board of governors, said Baker’s history as governor and stint as a former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care demonstrated an ability to listen, learn and adapt.
“In both of those roles as governor and health care CEO he was in very complex environments and worked to solve some pretty hard, what seemed to be intractable, problems,” said Livingstone, who was part of the team that hired Baker. She said the fact that Baker didn’t come from the worlds of academia or athletics was another plus.
What the NCAA needs most from Baker is help in finding a model that will bring more stability to athletics. Livingstone said that model should provide compensation for athletes but stop short of designating them employees.
“We’re all working with Charlie as we develop these ideas together,” she said.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Baker appreciates the crisis college athletics is in and has brought a new urgency to the role.
“There’s the question of how governable the NCAA is and I think Charlie sort of poses that question in real time, because he is such an effective leader and manager,” Swarbrick said. “If he can’t engineer the change, I don’t think anybody can.”
For Baker, navigating potentially choppy political waters was a skill he honed as a Republican in Democratic Massachusetts, adapting to a sometimes frosty political environment by making as many allies as possible and choosing his fights carefully.
It was a lesson learned in part during his first run for governor against Democratic incumbent Deval Patrick in 2010. During the race, Baker came off as too conservative and a sore loser, said Erin O’Brien, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
“Four years later he ran as someone who was more bipartisan, congenial and I think that helped him,” O’Brien said. “He showed he could learn and change course.”
Although Baker at times found himself at odds with some unions, he developed a public “bromance” with then-Democratic Mayor of Boston Marty Walsh, a former labor lawyer and current executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association.
“He’s used to a semi-hostile environment. He’s used to working with people who aren’t exactly sure about him,” O’Brien said. “As governor, he could go along with the Democratic leaders with some small changes. With the NCAA, member schools are not going to be satisfied with the status quo. He has to be more of a doer.”
Michael McCann, a law professor and director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire, said Baker seems like a good fit for a nearly impossible job.
“He has the right background for what the NCAA needs to do, which is to reorient itself,” McCann said. “He’s pragmatic, he’s reality based, he understands the importance of deal making.”
During his eight years as governor Baker faced a slew of challenges, from battling blizzards, to trying to fix a teetering public transit system, to leading the state through the pandemic. He also drew the ire of former President Donald Trump by refusing to endorse or vote for him 2016 and 2020.
One issue that vexed Baker throughout his tenure was the state of metropolitan Boston’s public transit system. Baker poured billions into replacing tracks, fixing signals and updating electrical systems even as officials dealt with runaway trains, subway cars belching smoke and rush hour trains running on weekend schedules.
At times the system seemed unfixable, not unlike the NCAA. McCann said the organization has tried to cling to a model that doesn’t resonate with the public anymore — the idea that athletes at top schools are amateur athletes, even as college sports rakes in billions annually.
Baker will need to steer schools toward a new model, McCann said.
“It’s a big undertaking and he knew that. I don’t know if there is a right person for the job because it is so challenging,” he said. “The open-ended question is whether it’s too late for the NCAA.”
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed.