Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 7, 2014

The NCAA Goes Pro

So much for the fig leaf. One can still find its remnants, like so much unraked detritus in late autumn. There on the NCAA’s website there are entire pages devoted to student-athletes and, in the organization’s own words, the ongoing mission of “safeguarding (their) well-being …and equipping them with the skills to succeed on the playing field, in the classroom and throughout life.” The association, which counts more than 1,200 schools, conferences and affiliated organizations among its membership, defines its core purpose as integrating “intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.”

That may still hold true for a young member of a Title IX driven women’s soccer team at some Division III school. But on Thursday the NCAA acknowledged that when it comes to big time college sports the driving force is not some noble amateur ideal but the power of money. By a vote of 16-2 the Division I board of directors adopted a proposal that will allow the five power conferences and their 65 member schools to largely set their own rules on important issues affecting both the young men and women who wear the team colors and the games that they play.

The conferences are the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12, Big-12 and the SEC. They are home to the football squads that appear on national television and play in the major bowl games, and the basketball teams that are anything but Cinderellas when March Madness rolls around. While all athletic programs are not equal even within these conferences, these are the universities with sports budgets topping $60 million per year.

This is Alabama, where football head coach Nick Saban’s salary is $6.9 million. This is Ohio State, with its new 10,000 square foot, $2.5 million dollar locker room for the football team. This is the Southeastern Conference, dominant in both football and basketball, set to inaugurate its own cable channel next week. The SEC Network will be operated by ESPN. Some of us are old enough to remember when ESPN launched more than three decades ago. The question at the time was how could a network devoted just to sports possibly fill up its schedule? How very quaint.

Under the proposal adopted Thursday these conferences and their member schools are expected to increase spending on athletics by as much as $5 million per year. The value of scholarships will increase, with these schools now able to offer recruits money beyond direct charges for tuition, board and books, up to “the full cost of attendance.” That means effectively providing players with a stipend, though of course the university presidents and NCAA officials were all quick to insist that somehow this did not equate to paying their players. More money will be spent on recruiting and rules around athletes using agents could well be loosened. Restrictions on players making money from non-athletic pursuits will likely be a thing of the past, which is a good thing. The star wrestler at the University of Minnesota who lost his eligibility because he sold a song on iTunes would be able to keep his profits and his place on the team.

Other changes are likely as well, all of which will have the effect of widening and codifying the gap between the Division I power conferences and all other college athletic programs. That has presidents and athletic directors from some of those latter universities crying foul. Aside from independent Notre Dame and good old Boise State of the Mountain West Conference, most of the well-known powers in Division I football reside in one of the five conferences. But there are plenty of successful and competitive basketball programs who have helped make the annual NCAA tournament fascinating who will now be at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to recruiting. If one moves beyond the two major collegiate sports, there are many lesser programs, from lacrosse to soccer to swimming, where schools from other conferences regularly compete successfully against opponents in the newly empowered and enriched Big-5. Their ability to continue to do so took a turn for the worse on Thursday.

That’s why there is still a slim chance that the new autonomy for the five conferences might not be finally approved. There are 351 Division I member schools, 286 of which are from conferences other than the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12, Big-12 and SEC. If 75 formally object to the proposal it will be put to a vote of all Division I members. At that point if 125 schools cast “no” votes the proposal would have to be reworked.

While such an outcome might seem a distinct possibility at first glance, the hard truth about big-time college sports makes final adoption of Thursday’s proposal more than likely. The reality is that there are universities with football and basketball programs with identities that are tethered to their schools by nothing more than a common name. That might not be true of every one of the 65 schools in these five conferences, nor are the Big-5 necessarily home to every such program. But the conferences that won autonomy on Thursday are a good enough representation of those programs.

They have been amateur or collegiate in little more than name only for years. With their pro-like stadiums and massive arenas all complete with expensive luxury suites, these programs are on the other side of the collegiate solar system from the noble NCAA ideal. Of late the association and some of its members have been beset by everything from accusations of hypocrisy for marketing jerseys with stars’ names and numbers while disciplining players for selling autographs, to players contemplating unionization, to a class action suit about head trauma.

Add to that the implicit threat behind the push for greater autonomy by the five power conferences, which was for them to simply walk away from the NCAA. Instead everyone remains in the association, with the president of Wright State seeing the result as “a wonderful combination of allowing them to do what they need to do, and we still continue the value of an intercollegiate model that means a lot to all of us.” Call it the new fig leaf.

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