Let's Give the Rich and Powerful Their Own NCAA Division

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

June 17, 2013

With sports playing an increasingly vital role in the finances of some major-conference universities, and with the courts questioning long-held beliefs about what amateur athletes deserve, the collegiate landscape is shifting in an unavoidable reality—change is coming.

It's time to revise the framework of college athletics to accommodate the evolving commercial environment of an exclusive group of institutions. Responding to growing criticism, the NCAA's president, Mark Emmert, last month acknowledged the inadequacies of the existing system by suggesting that the creation of another NCAA division would be welcome.

While there are 1,066 active NCAA member institutions across three levels (Divisions I, II, and III), it is abundantly evident that concerns within college athletics—conference realignment, the power of coaches, multibillion-dollar contracts for broadcast rights, and issues of student-athletes' welfare—involve only a small number of them. There is no compelling reason to change the operations of college athletics at the 726 colleges in Divisions II and III. They are successful in offering sports for transformative educational lessons in ways difficult to recreate in the classroom.

However, among the 340 institutions in Division I, there is a distinct bifurcation between athletics programs that generate revenue and those that do not. Emmert has finally recognized this dichotomy. The creation of a fourth NCAA division would reflect the realities of the collegiate-sports industry in the 21st century.

This new division—let's call it Super Division I (SDI)—would remain under the jurisdiction and regulatory oversight of the association while abiding by its mission "to be an integral part of higher education and to focus on the development of our student-athletes." Let's assume that membership is restricted to institutions in the Power 6 conferences (Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big East, Big 10, Pac-12, and Southeastern). SDI would necessitate the formation of its own leadership council, which would include current and former college athletes and would deal with the needs of member institutions while ensuring their integrity, competitive balance, and compliance with rules.

To differentiate college athletics from professional leagues, academic standards and integrity would have to be maintained despite rules variances reflecting the distinct, more commercial nature of this division. All college athletes would take the same curriculum that their fellow students do. Athletes must obtain their degrees at the same rates as other students at their institutions. Separate does not mean equal, and we must strive to ensure that a college education and degree have meaning for all students, regardless of athletics participation or NCAA-division membership.

That said, in this brave new world, the following rules should be adopted to reflect student welfare, the growing levels of commercialism, and the rights of participants:

  • Have athletics scholarships cover the full cost of attendance and not be capped at tuition and fees, room and board, and required books. A stipend, in the neighborhood of $3,000 per student, according to a recent study, would help reduce the growing underground compensation system for elite athletes.
  • Embrace the Olympic amateur model by lifting the restriction on college athletes' commercial opportunities. This shift would offer any student the opportunity to secure endorsement deals or receive payment for the use of his or her name and image.
  • Create an education fund that provides continuing financial assistance to college athletes, allowing them to complete their degrees even after their athletics eligibility, and corresponding scholarship, has expired.
  • Provide full health insurance for all athletes and cover all deductibles for injuries related to participation in an intercollegiate sport. Offer full disability insurance to elite athletes, protecting them against catastrophic injuries that could derail their professional careers.
  • Allow athletes to hire agents to protect their rights, including providing assistance in evaluating scholarship offers from institutions, negotiating commercial opportunities, and navigating the transition from college to professional sports.

By modifying our definition of amateurism, these changes would preserve the pageantry of college athletics, but without the hypocrisy. Paramount to the success of this reform is the requirement that an athletics department must remain accountable to its institution's mission; this codification of a changing landscape does not remove the requirement that student-athletes participate fully in academic life. Failure to abide by this principle, whether by the individual or the institution, must be met with a swift response, which could include expulsion from SDI.

The cost of putting this reform into effect may be substantial, but the institutions that generate significant revenue from their athletics programs can afford it. And while splitting Division I may not appeal to traditionalists, reform is coming to intercollegiate sports anyway, and creating a fourth NCAA division offers a sound strategy for change.

In 2009, Ed O'Bannon, a former basketball star at the University of California at Los Angeles, sued the NCAA, challenging its right to profit, in perpetuity, from the names, images, and likenesses of players without compensating them. Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson are among those who have joined the suit. The NCAA's response has been to argue that athletes sign away their rights forever when they agree to play for their college teams.

But hanging over the NCAA is the possibility that, if the case is certified as a class action this month, damages could eventually surpass $1-billion.

In addition, the California Legislature is considering a bill that would require state universities and colleges that offer full athletics scholarships and that receive media and licensing revenues in excess of $20-million annually to give each athlete a $3,600 stipend and guarantee a full athletics scholarship for five years, instead of the traditional year-to-year scholarships. Significantly, this bill violates NCAA rules regarding amateurism, because the required stipend meets the NCAA definition of an "extra benefit," which is one not authorized by the NCAA. In any case, this legislation foreshadows further conflict over what "amateurism" means in college sports.

Homogeneity among Division I's 340 institutions has been a fiction for quite some time. Now, clearly, if higher-education leaders do not act soon to resolve the tensions between the competing forces of commercialism and education in college sports—and particularly in this division—a resolution will be imposed upon them in a far less palatable manner.

Warren K. Zola is assistant dean for graduate programs in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College.