For the past six months, the NCAA membership structure has been engaged in a constitutional review. This perceived ‘constitutional crises’ arose over the past couple of years of increasing high profile legal actions brought by students upset with the perceived power and money imbalance in their experience. They love to play and see it as no different than other students’ rights to be benefitting and preparing for their hopeful chosen profession. Fair enough! The problematic gap has been largely created at the scholarship division where D1 members have created an ever-widening gap of haves and have nots, of the self-perpetuating need for more and more revenue to feed their campus appetites for coaches’ salaries, facilities, and brand management, but not necessarily for student services and support. While the issues for some D1 students are real and important, most college student athletes, regardless of Division, are just that, truly student-athletes who want to go to school and play sports, most members and their athletic programs have things well in balance, focused on the student athlete and running things on a fiscal shoestring.
The constitution of the NCAA is NOT the problem; the self-perpetuating cycle of money, power, and institutional ego of less than 10% of the members is the problem. We can’t fix what is broken, because it is a small fraction of the endeavor and the problem is largely one of integrity by those institutions, not of values or rules. Don’t misunderstand me, I think high level college basketball and football are great! They have just tipped over the scale to be pre-professional entertainment sports rather than educational sports for their own sake. By and large college sports are AWESOME and not broken and no danger to anti-trust scrutiny or students getting ahead for themselves based on their own efforts. The ‘abuse’ of some students, in some sports, is largely in the ‘big time sports’ in the ‘Power conferences’ are what should rightly be reviewed and fixed.
Currently, the Board of Governors is the ultimate responsible structure and is part of the problem. Too big, too lopsided to the representatives of D1 and perpetuates that the money and power holders get to set the agenda. By much of the constitutional committee’s own admission, the problems are in D1 not D2 or D3. By suggesting that the BOG be smaller but maintain a 4:1 ratio of seats/power for D1, they are not acknowledging the actual problem. Perhaps a more representative 2 seats each for D1, D2, D3 and 1 independent advisor (not 5) and the addition of a rotating student athlete voting member, would even the governance structure rather than perpetuate it. It would allow a common sense, a truly federated approach, rather than simply reducing the same power structure into fewer hands. Several years ago, there was a band-aid applied to the same big picture problems and the answer was to add 5 ‘outside, independent overseers. Guess what, hasn’t worked, won’t work, because the problem is not with the organization necessarily, it is with the never-ending cycle of power, money and ego that are driving up the dependency on BIG MONEY, instead of appropriate campus financing plans. Campus integrity is the problem for some, not all. Yes, a smaller BOG would be good, but if we were truly representative and federated, then the professionals that run 2/3 of the organization could influence decisions better and we would not need outside overseers who may or may not truly understand our profession.
And then the money, the root of the problem, no surprise. The fundamental premise that D1 earns the money so they get to decide what to do with the money, simply must go if we are to remain one organization. We are either a federated organization or not. Yes, the D1 basketball contract earns a billion dollars, BUT those members have created an insatiable appetite in their expenses that is the heart of the problem. Campus integrity must come into play at some point. If those institutions want to sacrifice their integrity so that 15 students a year can play semi-professional basketball, I say let them. Let them go. If big time football wants to follow suit, again, let them go. Let us then retool the NCAA into what it was intended to be, a membership organization for educational sports, not semi-professional ones. It will take some doing however, there will be sponsors who want to spend less advertising money to support many college athletes through other championships and events and that advertising money will still help provide the necessary administrative structure to help that happen. Everyone has gotten too dependent and complacent because of ridiculous sums of advertising and sponsorship money in the television contracts. And it is all truly driven by facility and coaching arms race. It’s a shame. College athletics is awesome, it can be transformative for all who play, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, instead,
The review of the constitution has not produced transformative change. The current conversation is focused on common values of intercollegiate athletics as we know it, student focus, health and safety, educational priority, importance of diversity and inclusion, all good things. The problem is that power and money are still driving the conversation. The new approach may allow for more divisional autonomy and flexibility and that is a great thing, but if the whole organization is dependent on the advertising dollars from a mega-dollar tv deal, it cannot shake its current challenges.
College athletics is not broken, a small number of schools and students are creating a perceived constitutional crisis and it is endangering the true collegiate sports model. It should be about education not entertainment. Common sense and integrity can and should be resurrected but will only happen at the campus level.