Two weeks ago, in the middle of college football’s bowl season, the most-powerful conference commissioners sent an email to their fellow Division I leaders urging them to join a "Coalition to Save College Sports."
The effort, which is expected to be announced any day, calls for a "loosely knit group of conferences and universities" to join together to convey the benefits of big-time college sports, a message they believe has been lost in the push by some players to unionize or be paid, the email said.
"We need to make our case," said the leaders of the 10 highest-profile leagues, "before it is too late."
News of the coalition, first reported by USA Today, comes as college sports faces unusual scrutiny. Last year Mark Emmert, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, faced tough questions from a Senate committee over the association’s shortcomings in protecting athletes from head injuries and the need for colleges to provide players with better scholarships and more time off from their sports.
In recent weeks, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has met with various people concerned about the future of big-time sports to discuss a possible presidential commission on intercollegiate athletics. According to USA Today, NCAA leaders are scheduled to meet this week with officials in the Obama administration, as the association holds its annual convention near Washington.
The commissioners helped broker an estimated $500-million annual television deal for the College Football Playoff, which culminates in Monday night’s national-championship game between Ohio State and Oregon. But as more money has flowed into the game, college leaders have faced criticism for not providing more of it to players. (The NCAA announced last week that the College Football Playoff could provide up to $3,000 in travel expenses for families of each competing player.)
At this week's NCAA convention, the five wealthiest leagues are expected to approve new rules allowing their institutions to provide athletes with additional money toward their full cost of attendance.
But as the wealthy leagues look to give more benefits to players, they don't want to miss an opportunity to communicate that athletics are a "crucial part of the educational experience," the commissioners said in the email, which was sent in late December and obtained by The Chronicle.
"Thanks to the way college sports are run, student-athletes gain an education, learn skills, and have opportunities in life," the email said. "But today, those benefits are being challenged and we believe we need to do a better job of getting our message out."
One person familiar with the coalition, who was not authorized to speak on its behalf and thus insisted on anonymity, said the move had struck some people as disingenuous.
"The notion that there is concern about saving the business days after the latest showcase of economic power is, at best, complicated," this person said in a text message.
While many people may agree that the NCAA must do a better job of communicating its message, this person said, "I only wish more selfless souls came together to get it right."
After our CCA meeting in Chicago, we thought it was important to reach out to you to make progress on one of the issues we discussed – the creation of a coalition to protect the student-athlete experience.
As you are aware, we need to do a better job telling our story. For generations, college athletics have been a crucial part of the educational experience. Thanks to the way college sports are run, student-athletes gain an education, learn skills, and have opportunities in life. But today, those benefits are being challenged and we believe we need to do a better job getting our message out.
We need to make our case before it is too late.
We would like to proceed with the formation of a coalition that is as broad as possible. The goal of the coalition, simply stated, is to save college sports. This coalition, “The Coalition to Save College Sports”, would serve as point of organization so you can receive fact sheets, Qs & As and other useful documents to address the many issues that have come up.
The coalition would not be a legal entity – it would simply be a loosely-knit group of conferences and universities that are concerned about the damage that would be done to the college experience if student-athletes were to unionize or be paid. The coalition’s mission is communications. It would not be involved in any of the decisions universities and conferences will make about benefits or other items that are under your individual purviews.
The coalition will also allow us to gather your input and hear your thoughts and ideas as we proceed with our messaging. There is no financial expense involved in your joining the coalition.
I hope you will sign on. We want this coalition to be as deep and as broad as possible.
If you would like to join, please respond to this email to In Ja Halcomb at the Pac-12 (firstname.lastname@example.org) no later than January 9. Our plan is to publicly announce the coalition soon thereafter.
Mike Aresco, American Athletic
John Swofford, ACC
Bob Bowlsby, Big 12
Jim Delany, Big Ten
Britton Banowsky, C-USA
Jon Steinbrecher, Mid-American
Craig Thompson, Mountain West
Larry Scott, Pac-12
Mike Slive, SEC
Karl Benson, Sun Belt
Brad Wolverton is a senior writer who covers college sports. Follow him on Twitter @bradwolverton.