NCAA committee faces hurdles to deliver real change

NCAAF

INDIANAPOLIS — The group of 21 college sports stakeholders tasked with transforming NCAA Division I sports before the start of next football season gathered in a hotel ballroom in Indianapolis this week to begin sketching out its plan of attack.

NCAA members adopted a new constitution Thursday during their annual convention, reaffirming a very familiar set of shared beliefs that include the ideas that their athletes shouldn’t be professionals and that college sports should be an education-first enterprise. It’s now the responsibility of each of the association’s three divisions to independently rewrite their own rules to meet their group’s needs within the constitution’s framework.

Evidence has piled up in the past year that suggests large portions of the general public, lawmakers, the federal court system and college athletes themselves increasingly believe that for the top tier of college programs, those high-minded ideals are little more than lip service meant to protect and market the multibillion-dollar entertainment industry.

The Division I Transformation Committee now has roughly seven months to try to prove them wrong.

The first part of that process, which was completed by the full NCAA membership this week, required taking a 43-page document and cutting it in half to simplify and update the members’ principles.

Putting those principles into practice will require a significant facelift to the 400-plus pages of the association’s rulebook. The committee’s first challenge is deciding where to begin.

“Do you take a 400-page rulebook and apply surgical skill with a scalpel? Or do you take a 400-page rulebook and toss it into the bonfire?” said Ohio University athletic director Julie Cromer, who is co-chair of the committee alongside SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. “I think we probably have people on both sides of those approaches.”

Cromer and Sankey represent schools with vastly different financial realities. They are a microcosm within a microcosm as co-leaders of a group that has to find rules that will work for both the Power 5 schools with budgets approaching $200 million per year and the smaller Division I programs that operate on less than $20 million per year. Both inside and outside the NCAA, there are growing doubts that such a wide spectrum of schools should remain under one set of rules. The transformation committee’s work in the months to come could provide an important test for whether these schools can find common ground, or if the richest of these athletic departments will split even further from the rest of the NCAA.

“My personal opinion is that Division I is too large,” said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who is not a member of the transformation committee. “It’s very much a mixed bag. Making policy that serves everybody equally well is next to impossible.”

Julie Roe Lach, who runs the Horizon League comprised of schools such as Cleveland State and Detroit Mercy, said that the future of Division I’s size is “the million-dollar question” for its members. She said she’s optimistic that the group won’t need to divide further — a move that could potentially jeopardize the future makeup of the annual March Madness tournaments for men and women.

“I haven’t heard some sort of groundswell for this next category or subdivision, but I do think this is more of a wide-open assessment that the transformation committee is taking on,” she said.

Sankey said it’s not on “his working list” to consider the idea of a larger break from Division I. He said rather than as a test of the ties that bind the division together, he views the coming months as an “important opportunity” to find a path forward together.

Others feel that the more significant divide exists between individual sports rather than the schools. In other words, the difference between the football or basketball teams and most other sports on any given campus is bigger than the gap between the wealthiest and most cash-strapped athletic departments.

Craig Robinson, the executive director of the National Association for Basketball Coaches, said in a statement this week that he believes the new governance structure should provide individual sports with “broad legislative and policy autonomy to make decisions based on the sport’s unique opportunities and challenges.”

The Knight Commission, a college sports reform advocacy group, has previously suggested that a lot of the problems facing college sports could be solved by removing FBS-level football from the NCAA and making that level of the sport govern itself.

While NCAA leadership and conference commissioners have shown no interest in separating football, Sankey said that now is the time for all constituents to bring ideas to the table for the transformation committee to consider.

The Knight Commission has also suggested that a revamped financial structure could help to provide a legally viable way for athletic departments to hold each other accountable for putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to prioritizing academics and the health and well-being of their athletes.

Most, if not all, of the university presidents and athletic department administrators would like to find ways to curb the massive and steadily increasing amounts of money that top schools are spending on coaching salaries and facilities. Athletic directors and university presidents who say they’d rather spend those dollars on providing more education or health and safety benefits to their athletes haven’t been willing to do that at the expense of falling behind their competition on coaches and facilities, items that have a bigger impact on recruiting. Any mutual agreements to limit their spending on those items, though, is likely to be challenged as a potential violation of federal antitrust laws.

“The fear of litigation is paralyzing the national leadership and the conference leadership,” said Amy Perko, the Knight Commission’s executive director.

Perko says schools could avoid those legal pitfalls by rethinking the way that they share the large sums of money they make from the NCAA basketball tournaments or the College Football Playoff. One of the Knight Commission’s suggestions include a luxury tax that would decrease the amount of those funds for any school that spends over a certain amount on coaching salaries. Another is to consider a school’s success in a wide variety of sports when splitting up their shared profits. Currently, a large portion of NCAA profits are divvied up based on a school or conference’s success in the men’s basketball tournament.

Sankey, who represents a conference full of schools that can likely afford to provide more resources and opportunities to their athletes while continuing to pay top dollar for coaches and facilities, said he doesn’t share Perko’s perspective. Other leaders from smaller conferences were more receptive to some of those ideas.

Sankey and other NCAA leaders are instead hoping that Congress will provide them with at least a partial exemption from antitrust laws in order to implement some more regulation. More than a year after asking Congress to intercede, though, it appears that the NCAA and its schools will have to prove they are more than a money-making business before any help arrives on that front. The transformation committee represents perhaps the last, best opportunity to show that they are in fact an academics-rooted organization.

To get there, the committee will have to overcome their differences and the bureaucratic hurdles that have frequently led to past instances of overpromising and underdelivering when it comes to substantial change in college sports. Sankey said some NCAA board members believe that it’s more important for this work to be done well than to be done quickly, opening the possibility that their efforts might need to stretch beyond August. Skepticism remains among other NCAA members about just how transformative the transformation committee can be in the coming months.

“It is a big word,” Sankey said. “And we’ll see. We’re just beginning to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

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