How Should Big-Time College Sports Change?

Bob Levey, Getty Images

Tra Carson, a 6-foot-1, 227-pound running back for the Texas A&M Aggies, was carted off the field with a head injury in November. 
Although that injury wasn’t serious, the NCAA is under scrutiny for failing to protect college athletes from such trauma.
February 10, 2014

The NCAA has been on the ropes lately, facing criticism for its treatment of players, doubts about its leadership, and departures of experienced staff. The association is still battling a federal class-action lawsuit over athletes’ rights and now faces a new effort to unionize college football players.

So it might seem that hundreds of Division I leaders who gathered last month for their annual meeting would be ready to debate serious change. Some small moves were made. But the officials spent little time discussing how they want big-time sports to look in five to 10 years.

That got us thinking: What are the big ways in which college sports needs to change?

The Chronicle put that question to more than a dozen experts in recent weeks, and came up with the following recommendations. Over the coming days, you can add your voice to the debate on Twitter using the hashtag #NCAAchange.

We’ll consider the best suggestions for a follow-up article, and hope to give the people in charge something to think about.

1. Create a football federation.

The desire to keep Division I together appears strong. But the priorities in elite football programs are so different from those at most colleges that they need their own governance system and full rule-making authority, neither of which would be provided under the recently proposed NCAA changes.

The transition to a College Football Playoff will create a new operating structure around the biggest-money sport, allowing power conferences to test whether they even need the NCAA. It's unlikely we'll see a split anytime soon, but some observers believe it is inevitable.

Todd Turner, a former athletic director at Vanderbilt and the University of Washington, says marquee football programs should form their own federation, giving them the autonomy they need while still operating under the NCAA banner. Last month Mr. Turner, now a consultant to NCAA colleges, sent a letter to Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, and other Division I leaders proposing a football association for the 65 biggest programs and a separate regional network in which the next 40 or so largest institutions would vie for a slot in a major bowl game. (The big conferences could still contract with the NCAA for legislative and enforcement support.)

As more power consolidates with the five wealthiest leagues, they could benefit from having an independent leader to help shepherd changes and maximize media contracts, which are expected to double in value in the next six years. Many people predict a diminished role for the NCAA chief, with the next one coming from outside the ranks of college presidents.

2. Organize by sport.

The NCAA could avoid many of its headaches by giving each sport more autonomy. A federation model like the one used by the U.S. Olympic Committee makes sense to some. But the NCAA could accomplish a lot by creating coordinating bodies that take a long-term view. Jamie Zaninovich, commissioner of the West Coast Conference, suggests establishing one for men’s basketball, the NCAA’s crown jewel. Similar to the NBA’s Competition Committee, the group would monitor issues like officiating standards and one-and-done players, and help coordinate an agenda for the sport.

That would alleviate one of the biggest frustrations with the NCAA—a lack of leadership. "As it is, everyone's in charge but no one's in charge," says one longtime observer. "It's a mess."

3. Strengthen enforcement.

Mistakes in the NCAA’s investigation at the University of Miami, and subsequent staff departures, have led many Division I leaders to ponder outsourcing the enforcement system.

One Big Five commissioner suggested to The Chronicle that the NCAA could petition the Uniform Law Commission, which drafts and promotes the enactment of uniform state laws, for increased enforcement powers, including the ability to subpoena witnesses.

A more likely change: The NCAA keeps its enforcement and infractions operations in house, but they become subject to regular external reviews, says John Infante, a compliance expert who runs the Bylaw Blog. That would most likely lead to more consistent punishments and help the association avoid perceived conflicts of interest.

4. Clean up academics.

The NCAA has increased its core-course requirements for entering first-year students and toughened academic expectations for two-year transfers. But coaches continue to find loopholes for talented players. Meanwhile, the academic gap between high-profile athletes and the rest of the student body continues to grow.

Critics say the NCAA must raise its initial-eligibility standards, which many institutions use as a de facto admissions bar, or allow for an academic "year of readiness" to ensure that more players match up academically with their peers. One former academic adviser suggests a simple test: If you can’t read above a ninth-grade level, you aren’t allowed to play.

An equally important change would be to crack down on widespread abuses with online classes, academic advisers say. Colleges and accreditors might look the other way. But if the association is serious about academic integrity, advisers say, it could swing a bigger stick.

5. Get serious about players’ rights.

Unless Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA star, prevails in his class-action suit over the commercial use of athletes’ images, the likelihood of players’ getting paid is remote. Players who want to unionize also face significant hurdles.

But there’s a push among the wealthiest colleges to pass along to players a greater share of the television revenue they generate. Expect that to come through new health and safety benefits, including better access to long-term disability, added money toward players’ full cost of attendance, and more scholarships in high-profile sports.

Others want to see guaranteed athletic aid, a relaxation of agent rules, and opportunities for athletes to do more than play sports. One proposal would restrict athletics obligations to three hours a day outside of competition, with one day a week in which players have no access to training facilities other than for injury treatment.

Players also deserve a seat—and a vote—on whatever new NCAA governing board is created, says Melissa Minton, a former soccer player at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who recently completed a term on the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. "We have the potential to impact things a lot," she told The Chronicle last month. She and her colleagues say it’s time they were heard.

6. Improve safety protocols.

Mr. O’Bannon’s case gets most of the attention, but a federal class-action suit that says the NCAA has neglected its responsibility for players’ head injuries poses a significant threat. The NFL scored a major victory last year with its proposed concussion settlement, agreeing to pay just $765-million to thousands of injured players. But a federal judge last month questioned why the deal prevents NFL players who collect money under the arrangement from suing the NCAA.

At a minimum, medical professionals say, the NCAA should enforce more limitations on contact in football practice and require independent medical opinions on the sidelines, which professional leagues have already done. But the NFL discussions should give the association pause as it negotiates its own settlement. If the NCAA dedicates a sizable sum toward the prevention and treatment of head trauma, its reputation could begin to align with its mission of protecting the safety of players.

7. Strengthen oversight.

More than a dozen athletic trainers have been fired by major institutions after run-ins with football coaches over return-to-play decisions, The Chronicle found last year. Nearly every major medical association has supported new guidelines to help prevent such fallout, but the problem won’t improve unless more colleges require medical staff to report beyond the athletic department.

In coming years, expect to see more colleges move their compliance and academic-services offices outside of athletics as they look for more ways to protect themselves from liability. And as Mr. Infante, the compliance expert, says: "All it would take to get business offices moved out of the athletic department would be a series of financial scandals."