Did the NCAA finally get it right?

Clarkson vs. Cornell. Photo: Chris Waits, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Clarkson vs. Cornell. Photo: Chris Waits, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Are there big changes coming to college campuses?

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) made a landmark decision last week, one that will hit home throughout American academia with ripple effects well beyond the top tier sports schools.

Full disclosure – my wife is a professor at a local university, so the impact of NCAA decisions  matters to us because it affects our lives and the lives of friends and others in our community.

That being said, let’s do a quick recap of last Thursday’s events.

The NCAA Board of Governors voted to allow the Power Five Conferences – South Eastern Conference (SEC, think Alabama, LSU as examples), Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC, includes Duke, North Carolina), Big Ten (Ohio State University, Michigan), Pacific Athletic Conference (Pac-12, University of Southern Cal, Oregon), and Big 12 (Texas, Oklahoma) – to have more governance autonomy rather than strictly abiding by NCAA standards and rules like the other conferences must. In total, there are 65 schools in these Power conferences, out of a total of 351 universities and colleges with all of their sports in Division 1 (D1) teams. In our region, only the University of Vermont has full participation at this level, via the America East Conference. Schools like St. Lawrence University and Clarkson, where only hockey is played at the Division 1 level, are not affected directly by the proposed NCAA changes.

Under historic NCAA guidelines, student athletes cannot be paid for their participation in college sports. The recent decision is a direct response to the controversy surrounding whether student athletes should be paid. On one side: student athletes get a college education for free, that’s payment enough. On the other side: the amount of time a student puts into practice, games, and travel does not allow for other employment and therefore there is no opportunity to earn.

Yes, they can earn a scholarship, but rarely is it guaranteed for their full term at their school. For example,  if a player gets hurt in a game or practice in their Freshman year, they can lose their scholarship and may end up kicked to the curb in terms of cost of and access to a college education.

But there is even more to it. There are billions of dollars in profit generated by collegiate athletics, making money for colleges and their staff–like Athletic Directors (AD). At some major universities, ADs may earn up to seven digit incomes, like Jeremy Foley at the University of Florida who in 2013 earned $1,233,250, or Shawn Eichorst at the University of Nebraska who made $1,123,000 or Joe Castiglione at the University of Oklahoma who banked a cool million.

These are not the only ones, but a few examples, USA Today put together a great database (http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/college/2013/03/06/athletic-director-salary-database-methodology/1968783/) for people who want to know what ADs are making, many of whom are based at publicly funded schools. Why pick on ADs? So many of them have said for so long, things like “how can we pay athletes, where would that money come from?” I will let you stew on that after checking out the USA Today story.

With the NCAA’s new decision, the Power Five, which includes the largest earning universities in collegiate athletics, will now be able to give financial incentive to athletes if their conference chooses to do so. And why wouldn’t you! In January 2013, when Alabama walloped Notre Dame in the NCAA Football Championship game, they earned $23.6 million dollars – for that one game. Granted, that is the largest earning game of the year in collegiate athletics, but it’s one example. Also worth consideration:  when a team makes a big time, big paying bowl game, the revenue earned is shared amongst all conference members.

So how might the NCAA decision play out? Well, it’s likely the big conferences are going to choose to pay players, to ensure they recruit and retain the best players, just like the pros. This is great for the players.

For the schools outside of the big conferences, the impact could go one of two ways.

In one scenario, the smaller conference teams try to “keep up with the Joneses” by proposing the same type of regulations for their own conferences, which would be a disaster financially. Teams like Vermont who play in the small conferences wouldn’t be able to muster, for example, the financial incentives for top basketball recruits the way Duke can. So then what? Would they try and pay athletes, with less of a bank account, how would that work out? Would it drain college resources for academics?

In another scenario, a direction I think would be much healthier for schools outside of the big conferences, smaller universities and colleges would end their conference-oriented sports programs. If a team like UVM knows it can’t compete with Duke, then why bother? Often athletic programs at small schools are a financial drain.

This second scenario could be great for schools, getting them refocused on what they are intended to do: educate. And, these days, educate for global competition—the biggest “conference” of all.

Having said all this, I want you to understand that I love sports and I love collegiate athletics: the pageantry, the kids who know they aren’t “going pro,” but who play truly for the love of the game. There are so many positive qualities. But this NCAA decision could put us in the direction of getting away from the façade. Either you are an educational institution that prioritizes athletics—hello, Alabama! Or, you could be an educational institution that, how quaint, prioritizes education.

What do you think?

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4 Responses to “Did the NCAA finally get it right?”

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  1. Hank says:

    Good perspective, Jon. I hope your second scenario turns out to be the one that happens.

  2. Judith says:

    thoughtful article, Jon. I agree with Hank: #2 for me although I am not holding my breath

  3. Caren says:

    Jon… Your last sentence says it all. A college / university’s priority should be education. Sports is just one aspect of a well rounded educational program.

  4. The sole purpose of the NCAA is to ensure that as many people make as much money as possible off college athletics… except college athletes themselves. Until this dynamic fundamentally changes (and the recent change is nothing more than minor tweaking designed to prevent real reform), it will continue to be a scandal.