The governing body of collegiate sports must change quickly or become obsolete.
Last week, the NCAA issued a press release announcing that NCAA President Mark Emmert would be stepping down from his executive position, “by mutual agreement.” Emmert had held the position since 2010 and just last year had his contract extended through 2025, but that was then. Many, many things have changed in the intervening year, and it’s clear now that not only will the NCAA have to radically change its controlling ways, but that it will actually have to fight hard merely to survive as an institution.
I’m an old guy, and I have seen the NCAA evolve, but certainly I’ve never seen it so weak. While we can’t lay all of the blame on Emmert, things fell apart on his watch. Maybe the coup de grace for him came at the trophy presentation that followed the NCAA national basketball championship game. It was embarrassing enough that Emmert had to present the award to Bill Self and Kansas, a basketball program that the NCAA has been investigating for at least a couple of years (seems like forever). But then the flustered Emmert called the national champs, “the Kansas City Jayhawks.”
Yeah, “mutual agreement.”
Black eyes for Emmert’s NCAA
Inequities between men’s and women’s sports. Specifically, this issue arose with regard to the NCAA basketball tournament and involved scheduling, television coverage, facilities, etc. The 1972 Title IX of the Education Amendments Act prohibits sex discrimination in any educational institution that receives federal financial assistance. They all do. Title IX led to the proliferation of women’s sports, as the number of scholarships available had to be roughly equal to those available to male athletes. At big-time football schools, those 85 football scholarships spawned a lot of women’s soccer, lacrosse, gymnastics, and track teams. That was in 1972. The NCAA should have been more attentive to equity by now.
Sexual abuse scandals. Jerry Sandusky is only one of many, but he was at fellow Big Ten institution Penn State. More and more cases have emerged against coaches, trainers, and team doctors. The NCAA’s inclination seemed to be cover up in order to protect its members. Shame.
Academic fraud. The instance at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was the most notorious, but it’s not the only one. Pressure to succeed, pressure to bring in the big money, leads to cheating. As cases such as UNC’s become public, the very idea of the “scholar athlete” raises eyebrows. As the NCAA continues to lose power and influence, no longer the Big Brother overseeing everything, can individual institutions be counted on to do their own policing?
The NCAA, of course, has the inherent problem of trying to govern the athletic programs of its over 1100 member institutions. These schools are as diverse in size, mission, location, budget, and emphasis on sports as one can imagine. I realize that the NCAA is divided into “divisions,” but even so the policy of one-size regulation certainly doesn’t fit them all.
As policy, the NCAA has hung its hat – and its existence – on two principles: equity among member schools and the concept of amateurism for scholar-athletes. And it’s the protection of the all-important amateurism that the NCAA claimed entitled it to exemption from antitrust laws. Under Emmert, both principles collapsed. It might have happened under any NCAA president, but Emmert was unable to fend off attack after attack.
The notion of equity was always a sham. When I was on the athletic committee at Southern Miss in the early 2000s, the athletic budget was about 7% that of Ohio State’s. Yet, they were both Division I and could have played each other. They didn’t, but in football Southern Miss played Alabama, Auburn, and LSU fairly regularly, and also played Illinois, Indiana, and Pitt while I was on the committee. Even though the Golden Eagles won a few of those games, there was no “equity.” And, during Emmert’s tenure, the inequity has grown tremendously – largely as a result of television contracts and conference expansion. While OSU gets richer, Southern Miss now finds itself, with its very small media market in Hattiesburg, joining the Sun Belt Conference in a kind of desperation move to stay afloat.
As for amateurism, the U.S. Supreme Court shot that notion down with its 9-0 (amazing that all nine justices could agree on anything) decision in Alston v. NCAA, a decision handed down last June. While the ruling technically removed the NCAA’s cap on academic-related “benefits,” it actually opened the door to “pay for play.” Many Division I institutions are now paying scholar-athletes a monthly stipend for “academic expenses.” Actual salaries, like those for resident hall assistants, are no doubt on the horizon. And why not?
There are many important offshoots from the removal of the NCAA’s exemption from antitrust law suits and the debunking of equity and amateurism. I compiled a list of issues or troubles that arose in large degree during Emmert’s time at the helm. I don’t claim that it’s by any means complete, but these are issues that affect all member institutions, including the Ohio State Buckeyes.
The end of amateurism
NIL. Collegiate players are now being compensated for commercial use of their name, image (i.e. photos), or likeness (in video games, for instance). It started a while back when a UCLA basketball player asked out loud and then in a lawsuit why he wasn’t paid for his character in a video game — after all, pro players were compensated for use of their likenesses. The case worked its way through the courts, the NCAA fighting it all the way. But then, state legislature after state legislature approved the compensation for NIL, and it was a fait accompli.
Now, of course, players negotiate NIL contracts up front as they commit or transfer. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that the NCAA came down so hard on Jim Tressel and the Buckeyes for trading autographs and memorabilia for tattoo discounts.
One-time transfer rule. Not long ago, a player had to wait a full year to play for a transfer school. Who says? Well, the NCAA said. Then there were lawsuits and exemptions for “hardships” or other reasons, to the point where the rule simply wasn’t enforceable. It was replaced with “one-time transfer,” allowing a player to transfer once without penalty during a collegiate career. Why not unlimited transfers? Non-athlete students can transfer unlimited numbers of time without penalty. This rule is a stop-gap compromise and won’t last long, I don’t think.
Transfer portal. The portal is clearly related to the transfer rule above, but what’s interesting about it is its public nature and its appearance of transparency. A player announces entry to the portal. Let the bidding begin. It’s a kind of open market or free agency, without the use of agents or the payment of straight cash. I’m really curious about what will happen to the portal over the next 10 years, or so.
Super conferences. First, the NCAA was divided into divisions. Then, Division I football subdivided into Power Five and Group of Five conferences. Now, we’re headed to super conferences. Let’s face it, in football, there’s the SEC and the Big Ten. With their network television contracts and their fat war chests, these two conferences call the shots in big-time college football. There’s not even the posturing about equity. It’s all about bigger, richer.
What’s in store for the future?
I’m no oracle, but I’m going to offer a few ideas that I think might be realized over the next ten years, or so.
NCAA President. Facing ever more lawsuits, the NCAA will forgo hiring a former university president or athletic director as its leader. The NCAA, like professional sports, is more about power and influence than it is about athletics. The organization will go for a well-known political figure who can influence legislatures and courts.
Collective bargaining. A few years back the Northwestern University football team unionized. Both the university and the NCAA blocked it, but the action set folks talking. I expect players to start advocating their own cases, and, following the examples of their professional counterparts, form a players’ association to engage in collective bargaining. In many strong labor states, graduate assistants are unionized — a precedent for athletes.
Split of “money sports” from other athletic programs. The NCAA does a very nice job with its Division I basketball tournament. It’s exciting, fair, and profitable. I love it. Smaller schools lose money on all sports; they’re funded by student fees. Division I institutions hope to make money annually on basketball and football. Aside from the tournament, I see the NCAA losing even more control of the money sports. It’s here that amateurism and equity are most bogus.
Conference breakaway in football. The SEC and Big Ten will both expand further, then break away from the NCAA for football and run their own national championship. With their own media networks and with the national networks (Fox, CBS, ESPN) negotiating contracts with conferences, rather than the NCAA. I see this breakaway as nearly inevitable. Players in the super conferences will be compensated and provide essentially a farm system for the NFL.
Three years after high school rule. A lawsuit waiting to happen, the NCAA rule (which the NFL accepts so as not to rock a very nice boat) requiring players to wait three years out of high school before turning pro is going, going, gone. In basketball or baseball, for instance, there’s no such rule. The public argument in favor is that the NFL is so violent that the younger bodies simply aren’t ready for that level of competition. There may be some medical evidence, but my guess is that some court will decide that it’s a case-by-case situation. Not all bodies develop at the same rate.
With all of these changes on the horizon, the NCAA will be undergoing a complete overhaul in order to stay relevant, in order to stay alive. What will Ohio State football look like in 10 years? 20 years? Even bigger. No more games against Akron, but, otherwise, more of what we’re used to over the last couple of decades – much more!