COLLEGE ATHLETICS: Athletic directors, commissioners provide insight into NCAA reform, what lies ahead

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby
Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky

Editor’s note: This is part one of a five-part series titled “Moving Mountains: How the reformation of intercollegiate athletics could affect West Virginia schools and the amateurism of the student-athlete.” This story appeared in the Monday, June 23 editions of the Charleston Daily Mail. The series concludes Friday, June 27.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Change is coming to the NCAA’s Division I, a transformation likely to happen not in a matter of years, but in a matter of months. In fact, it could come even before the 2014 college football season — the first that features a four-team playoff for the national championship — kicks off in earnest.

“I think the best opportunity for us to get meaningful change is through the (NCAA) board of directors process in August,” said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby.

The results of those August meetings could alter the governing structure of Division I, with the largest schools owning the largest budgets gaining more independence in their decision making. Even more could come later, depending upon the outcomes of several court cases, which could give student-athletes more freedom in profiting from their likenesses.

Via courtrooms and board rooms across the United States, college athletics is on the verge of another period of significant evolution. Depending on court outcomes and the decisions of some of the most powerful members of the NCAA, the association — not an organization that has transformed quickly in the past — could evolve drastically in a few short years. The present concepts of student-athlete compensation — long limited to tuition, room, board and books — could broaden in scope.

Some universities may hand their student-athletes money that completely covers the cost of their attendance. Some may provide them health insurance. All will be allowed to offer as many meals as they wish on a given day. College athletic conferences already are discussing what else they can offer their student-athletes. The results of any of a number of lawsuits against the NCAA could open even more doors, yet lead to some questions for which there are no easy answers. How far will it go? Which universities are capable of delivering those benefits? Which universities may fall behind because their pockets aren’t deep enough? Will some NCAA sports fall behind as well as a result?

The present tumult could give way to an uncertain future for college sports, one that may look very different than the current model and could affect every level of the collegiate athletic experience.

How did we get here?

As much as people agree the NCAA will transform, most of them also agree it’s necessary. That goes for conference commissioners and university athletic directors as well as former student-athletes, and they’ve all tried to initiate that change in their own ways.

Members of the five conferences labeled “high visibility” — the Southeastern, Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast and Pac-12 — have called for more autonomy within the NCAA’s Division I. Those 65 schools believe their larger budgets and larger operations saddle them with a unique set of issues they must face, issues they don’t share with smaller conferences like Conference USA and the Sun Belt, whose athletic programs function with a fraction of the high-visibility schools’ resources.

“The high-visibility conferences are winning more than 90 percent of the championships,” Bowlsby said. “We also have 90 percent of the challenges from a rules compliance standpoint. Right now, the enforcement mechanism is broken. At the very least, it’s not optimal. So I think there’s an absolute imperative for change.”

Several lawsuits, mostly dealing with compensation for the use of student-athletes’ images and likenesses, also could mold college sports’ future. The most visible is O’Bannon v. NCAA, a class-action antitrust lawsuit filed by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon. The suit is asking that the limits on an athlete profiting from his or her image or likeness be removed. That case currently is being argued before a federal judge in Oakland, Calif.

A similar lawsuit, filed by former Arizona State and Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller against the NCAA and video game manufacturer Electronic Arts, already has been settled. That suit sought damages for student-athletes likenesses being used in NCAA football and basketball video games. EA settled with the plaintiffs for $40 million, while the NCAA settled for $20 million.

In March, sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler filed an antitrust claim in a New Jersey federal court on behalf of a group of former college football and basketball players, arguing the NCAA unlawfully capped player compensation at the value of an athletic scholarship. The NCAA and the five high-visibility conferences are named in the suit.

That came on the heels of another antitrust claim filed by a Seattle law firm on behalf of former West Virginia University running back Shawne Alston, asking the same defendants in the Kessler claim to pay damages for the difference of the cost of an athletic scholarship and the full cost of attendance.

A group of Northwestern University football players already have won the right to unionize. A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in March that the players were university employees and had the right to form a union and bargain collectively.

When WVU athletic director Oliver Luck was a Mountaineers quarterback from 1978-81, he remembered, even as a scholarship athlete, having to scrape together a couple of bucks to order a pizza. Yet he didn’t remember multi-million-dollar coaches contracts or the palatial facilities that schools like Oregon enjoy now. Before he returned to Morgantown, he watched his son Andrew, now a quarterback with the Indianapolis Colts, navigate his college football career at Stanford.

“I realized all of a sudden that there is substantially more money than there used to be,” Luck said. “That’s when I think a lot of the kids, who are pretty bright, pretty smart kids, saw the money coming in, saw the beautiful weight rooms and the new study center and the coach’s contract and the charter flights and all that stuff and had it pique their interest.”

What does everyone want?

Through the various lawsuits, current and former NCAA student-athletes seek a bigger piece of the pie and to help bridge the gap between the value of a scholarship and the full cost of going to college. And NCAA member schools seem ready to oblige in terms of cost of attendance — not just tuition, room and board and books, but all the other expenditures that come with going to college.

In its proposed redesign to the NCAA’s governance structure, the Division I steering committee on governance specifically mentions full cost of attendance when discussing autonomy for the high-visibility conferences.

“There isn’t any question that something around the cost of attendance makes a lot of sense,” Bowlsby said.

That idea is supported by more than Division I’s power conferences. Britton Banowsky, commissioner of Conference USA, which counts Marshall among its members, said schools are ready to provide that benefit to their student-athletes.

“I know that our conference specifically believes that student-athlete packages should provide up to cost of attendance,” Banowsky said. “I think the idea that student athletes have the resources necessary to attend the university, we think that’s appropriate.”

Bowlsby is ready to go further. On top of cost of attendance, he also mentioned transitional health care, so student-athletes can transition from injuries suffered during the time they competed or injuries that accumulated over time. He also mentioned increased career counseling and academic counseling.

The steering committee’s proposal also includes additional benefits that the high-visibility conferences can provide, like expenses for receipt of awards, complimentary admissions, postseason travel for friends and family and expenses incidental to practice like parking.

Banowsky said that, while Conference USA is ready to provide some benefits, it isn’t prepared to extend them past cost of attendance.

“I think collegiate model is important and retaining the collegiate model is important,” he said.

What comes next?

That the mention of those increased benefits comes under the heading of “Autonomy” is indicative of the divide that likely will form between the high-visibility conferences in Division I and the rest of the division’s membership. Bowlsby said a gulf already exists, evident in the budgets of Division I athletic departments. A USA Today database includes the athletic budgets for 230 Division I schools. Coppin State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference had the smallest revenue total, with about $3.4 million last year, while Texas topped the list with more than $165 million. The gap narrows among the high-visibility conferences, but the largest of those programs still can dwarf the smallest. According to USA Today’s database, the high-visibility conference team with the smallest revenues was Utah of the Pac-12, ranked 55th overall with more than $46.8 million.

Until now, Bowlsby said, the biggest and the smallest programs fell under the same blanket of rules, and that doesn’t work anymore.

“You make a rule that (the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002) applies to every business regardless of size,” Bowlsby said, offering an example. “It may be just a perfect thing for Apple or Google, but for that mom-and-pop grocery store, it makes no sense whatsoever. We have a lot of rules that are that way.”

While the high-visibility conferences are committed to shared governance in many areas, there are some areas where they seek independent decision-making power. That would come under permissive legislation, where the rest of Division I can adopt it at each institution’s respective discretion or as determined by each conference. It can also come under actionable legislation, which would affect only the five power conferences, though the rest of Division I would be free to address those issues.

Banowsky said that system would work for C-USA.

“That’s kind of the thought process, and frankly I don’t have a problem with that,” Banowsky said, “because I do believe those conferences need to be effective leaders for us and we need to give them some opportunity to lead.”

Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick also saw no problem with the proposed autonomy model.

“If they get the resources, more power to them,” he said. “But I don’t worry about that. I worry about what we do at Marshall, how we can do it well and how we can make our program better.”

Yet what if a school among the rest of Division I decides it has the student population, resources and teams competitive enough to cast its lot in a power conference? Conversely, what if a school among the high-visibility conferences decides that it can’t handle the costs of doing business at the top level? Will there be a way for schools in both predicaments to change their station in the college sports landscape?

Luck said there should be, that schools in smaller conferences can’t feel that they’re chained to those conferences forever if they don’t have to be.

“There has to be some kind of access, some sort of a pathway,” he said. “There has to be some way to have access or it’s just a one-way street.”

While the autonomy model seems to be the future of Division I, the potential results of those court cases has some wary. Even as the high-visibility conferences ask for more independence, the steering committee’s proposal states the schools have “repeatedly declared their unwavering belief in a collegiate model that maintains education as a bedrock principle.” Hamrick is worried that, if the results of the O’Bannon trial allow student-athletes to profit from their likenesses, college athletics would move away from that principle.

“Could you imagine what’s going to happen if some of this stuff is allowable where a quarterback can go to a local car dealership, do a commercial and get paid?” he asked. “That’s not amateurism. That’s not what an educational mission is. I thought we were here to educate people.”

Some outside the NCAA have similar issues with the results of the Northwestern football case. After that March NLRB decision, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation, wrote a column for titled, “Empower, Don’t Employ, Students.”

Hogshead-Makar is an attorney, a graduate of Georgetown Law, and co-edited the book, “Equal Play; Title IX and Social Change.” She also is a two-time All-American swimmer for Duke and a three-time Olympic gold medalist and has been at the forefront with Title IX and gender-equity issues in sports.

She said that athletics and education are synergistic, that research shows the benefits of a college sports experience when the two sides work together. It doesn’t benefit the student-athlete, she added, when the experience “loses its connection in full with higher education,” and that some of the possible changes could move some sports toward a for-profit model.

What hurts her confidence in the right choices being made are the people making the decisions. Hogshead-Makar said those people have a vested interest in the wrong outcome, which would be a move toward greater commercialization. She feels that would create problems that transcend gender-equity issues.

“It’s who’s sitting at the table,” she said. “Is there anybody sitting at the table that’s a civil rights lawyer who represents women or the disabled? Are faculty represented? Do taxpayers have a seat at the table? Who has a seat at the table are people who are trying to get the biggest chunk. They’ve got their forks out ready and they want the biggest chunk.”

What boosts her confidence back up is that the decision-makers have said they want to continue the educational model, which should be able to decelerate the move toward commercialization.

“They all want to be associated with a school,” she said. “Because their economic model of sport is directly associated with being a school … let’s say it breaks off. Could it be a not-for-profit enterprise if it was not associated with a school? There’s just no way.

“If it now becomes for-profit, now they have to pay market wages,” she added. “Now they have no donors. Now they have no student fees. They have no institutional support. They do not build their facilities with tax-free bonds. So they desperately need to stay under the school’s umbrella. They have to show somehow that what they’re doing is part of education.”

Divining the future of the NCAA as reform looms can be like a child trying to hold a toy water worm. As soon as he gets a firm grasp, that worm wriggles loose and the child must try to corral it again. The rate of the NCAA’s evolution could taper off following August’s board of directors meeting, yet a decision in the O’Bannon case could send it into hyperdrive.

“It’s hard to envision it being any more tumultuous than it is right now,” Bowlsby said. “Generally speaking, it’s not an organization that changes quickly. That would lead you to think that it’s going to calm down and probably evolve more slowly in the future. But it would be very difficult to predict that with any precision right now.”

Whether change speeds up or slows down as the months progress, those associated with college athletics know that, no matter the pace, it is inevitable. And each school will have crucial decisions to make in regards to their respective futures.

“I think each school will have to pick and choose, based upon what they can afford, what they’re going to do,” Hamrick said. “The days of standardized rules of every Division I program, I think that’s over.”

n Daily Mail sportswriter Mike Casazza contributed to this story.

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