Editor’s note: This is part five 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 Friday, June 27 editions of the Charleston Daily Mail.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The title of this five-part series on NCAA reform is “Moving Mountains.” The athletic directors of the state’s only two Division I athletic programs have certainly witnessed the landscape of collegiate athletics change dramatically over the past five years.
Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick, who was hired in 2009, has watched conference realignment overhaul Conference USA. Of the eight league opponents the Thundering Herd faced in his first year as Marshall AD, six have moved on to other conferences. Likewise, Oliver Luck has steered WVU directly into the change. The Mountaineers’ Big East home opener during Luck’s first year as athletic director, 2010, was against South Florida. This season, the program’s third in the Big 12, WVU hosts Oklahoma to begin league play.
As conference chaos has settled, other issues have come to the forefront. Times are a-changin’, and athletic directors have the arduous task of keeping up with the evolution of college sports. Next on the docket is NCAA reform and potential changes to governance, the quest for autonomy among the high visibility conferences and the potential for compensation for the student-athlete.
These issues could affect WVU, a member of a high visibility conference, and Marshall, which is on the opposite side of the dividing line, in very different ways.
Hamrick and Luck were presented with the same six questions related to the current climate in NCAA athletics. Here are their answers:
We’re at a point where the essence of the student-athlete and the relationship between the student-athlete and the school is about to change. What started us down this road?
HAMRICK: If the changes occur where universities are paying student-athletes, there’s no such thing as amateurism anymore. It’s out the door. And at the same time you have to wonder what affect this will have on the educational mission of the university toward the student-athlete. Will we just have minor-league football like we do with baseball if we pay players? TV revenue, coaches’ salaries, the arms race in college athletics and all this has been heightened with the Ed O’Bannon case. When we finish our new indoor complex we will have built $42 million worth of new facilities in the short time that I’ve been at Marshall. We’re not in the arms race, we’re just trying to build quality facilities that have been neglected for years at Marshall. At the end of the day when the student-athlete sees a coach making millions per year, he’s going “Wait a minute? That coach is not playing a down. I am. What do I get?” That’s human nature.
LUCK: In my opinion, the current situation had its origins in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the 1984 case Oklahoma vs. NCAA, which resulted in the conferences taking control of their member institutions’ television rights. This was the time when cable television was starting its meteoric rise and needed compelling content. The television advertisers crave the well-educated and affluent college fans and the universities enjoy the prime-time exposure that football and men’s basketball provided. This led to an incredible spike in the popularity of college athletics and launched the era in which we now find ourselves. Of course, the factors mentioned have also injected large amounts of money into the industry and this has not gone unnoticed by the student-athletes. Just today, I have read two stories about this. One involved the University of Kentucky selling its multimedia rights package (without television rights) to JMI for $14 million per year. The other story related how USC has decided to offer four-year guaranteed scholarships to all of their student-athletes. As a result of the increase in financial resources, the traditional relationship that the student-athlete had with his or her university — a relationship defined by academics, athletics and social engagement — is showing considerable signs of stress.
What do you feel is an acceptable level of financial support for a Division I student-athlete?
HAMRICK: Simply cost of attendance. Marshall University and Conference USA from Day 1 supported cost of attendance. When you look at what a student-athlete currently gets — a full scholarship, academic advising, an opportunity to show a talent, whether it’s football or basketball or whatever — throw that in with a full scholarship and the cost of attendance, I think that’s a pretty good deal. I put three kids through college and I know how much easier it would’ve been if they would have been able to receive an athletic scholarship.
LUCK: I believe that we should provide a student-athlete with a scholarship that covers the full-cost of attendance at his or her university for the entire academic year, i.e. including summer school. The NCAA has defined what a scholarship comprises and this definition has remained largely unchanged since the 1960s. It is high-time for the NCAA to allow an institution to provide a more comprehensive scholarship to its student-athletes. In WVU’s case, that would mean approximately $1,800 per year per student-athlete above and beyond the elements that are presently in an athletic scholarship. Please note that this would not create an employer-employee relationship as this difference would not be “payroll.” Rather, it would flow to the student-athlete as a stipend, similar to many other talent-based scholarships.
If approved, how will autonomy for the high visibility conferences (Big 12, SEC, etc.) benefit the entirety of Division I?
HAMRICK: I’m not really sure it will. I think autonomy is simply a means of making the current playing more unlevel in Division I. But, as I’ve said before, if they have the revenue and they want to spend it, the high visibility conferences, who am I to tell them they can’t? But I think what you will see is, within these high visibility conferences, the playing field will continue to become unlevel within those conferences. Can every school in the SEC do what Alabama is doing? If they can’t, the playing field is unlevel. Even though the playing field is currently unlevel right now, how does a Marshall University go to a bowl game and beat a team from the ACC that’s going to the Big Ten? And I believe one of the reasons the high visibility conferences want autonomy is to be able to do things to where that doesn’t ever happen.
LUCK: The push for autonomy for the five highly visible conferences stems from the desire to have these institutions, all of which are like-minded, well-resourced and consider themselves to be peers, to be able to decide issues that have an impact on them. There are well over 300 institutions in the D-I category and the variance among these schools is vast. The financial inequality among the 300-plus schools is growing day by day and has become very difficult to manage. It is anticipated that the autonomy sought by the highly visible conferences will be in the form of so-called permissive legislation, which means that any D-I school or conference would be allowed to decide whether, for example, it would want to provide the full cost of attendance for its student-athletes. Thus, it is difficult to know how all D-I institutions would respond to the various pieces of permissive legislation since they would have to look at each issue and decide for themselves whether it was good for their institution.
Division I athletics has witnessed an overhaul in the past five years with realignment and now reform. What will the college athletics landscape look like in another five years?
HAMRICK: I don’t think anybody knows. I do believe there will continue to be a separation between the five conferences and the other five conferences. In the high visibility conferences you could see them become more stable or you could see a separation within those conferences. For example, would a school from the ACC or the Big 12 move to the SEC? A lower school within the SEC move to another conference?
LUCK: In 2020, college athletics will look much like it does today. The highly visible conferences will not have changed much at all in terms of membership, but they will all be providing enhanced scholarships to all student-athletes, male and female. Athletic departments will still be primarily auxiliary units of their universities and the programs will be more popular than ever with fans. The television coverage of football and men’s basketball will reach new levels and the platforms to follow your favorite team — on a hand-held device, for example — will be legion. I do believe that administrators will be more focused on the health and welfare, including academics, of our student-athletes. I do not believe that student-athletes will be unionized nor will they be employees.
There’s only so much that can be accomplished at one time. What’s left to address in terms of governance and reform?
HAMRICK: I think with conference realignment, the TV deals are pretty much done with the conferences for a period of time, the bowl tie-ins with the conferences are pretty much done, and I believe that in August the high visibility conferences will get their wish for autonomy and I think what will happen then is they’ll just have to figure out what that means for them. I’m not sure at this point I’ve seen anybody agree on what that means other than when it comes to cost of attendance.
LUCK: In terms of governance, the NCAA makes the Byzantine Empire look efficient. The current governance model is broken and virtually all institutions — small, medium and large — agree on that. The critical issue regarding governance from my perspective is the desire for autonomy. The 65 schools in the highly visible conferences are pressing for autonomy in all areas related to football and student-athlete health and welfare in all sports. There is a critical NCAA meeting in August that should determine if the autonomy proposal is acceptable to the NCAA leadership.
When we look back years from now, what will be the historical legacy of this particular period?
HAMRICK: I believe the legacy will be to continue to separate the high visibility conferences from the other five. I could be wrong, but I believe whether it’s five or 10 years, there will be possibly separation in the five power conferences. Can a lower-level school in the SEC — if you pay your players and you have more than cost of attendance — and the quarterback can go down and do a commercial for a car dealer and he gets paid $100,000 to do it in Tuscaloosa and he gets $5,000 to do it in Nashville, do you think that’s going to make the playing field level in the SEC?
LUCK: In my opinion, the landscape will not look that much different. The biggest difference will be the increased support that institutions are providing the student-athletes in all sports. However, much of this will go unnoticed by the supporters of college athletics. So I think the legacy of this era will be a renewed focus on the student-athlete.