For Wealthy NCAA Programs, Autonomy Is Not a Panacea

Oklahoma and Kansas State basketball players face off in January. A governance system that the NCAA is poised to approve would allow wealthy programs like those in the Big 12 to offer thousands of dollars a year in additional scholarship assistance, but critics fear the extra money could be funneled to salaries for high-paid coaches.
August 07, 2014

The National Collegiate Athletic Association is set to approve a new governance system on Thursday that would allow the wealthiest athletic departments to operate more independently from their peers, freeing them from restrictions that they say have impeded their ability to help players.

The move, which comes as the NCAA faces increasing legal and regulatory pressure over players’ rights, would clear the way for wealthy programs to offer thousands of dollars a year in additional scholarship assistance, allow coaches more contact with recruits, and give players increased access to agents and career advisers. The changes would also provide players with more representation, including a vote, on certain NCAA committees.

Under the new system, the 350 or so colleges at the NCAA’s elite level would still be grouped together, but the five most-powerful conferences—the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12, and Southeastern—would be given new power to make their own rules. (The other 27 Division I conferences could adopt the same rules but may face financial limitations in doing so.)

Critics say the changes could placate players who stand to benefit financially, perhaps reducing their desire to sue for compensation. But that may not be enough to satisfy the many people who believe that there should be a market for athlete services.

College-sports experts lauded many of the ideas, including one that would reduce players’ athletics commitments in the offseason. But the new system has raised questions about equity and does not include a mechanism that would hold the most-powerful conferences accountable.

That means that many programs could still end up spending the vast majority of their money on fast-rising coaching salaries and opulent facilities, and not helping players as much as they said they would.

"My concern is that this will be for naught," said Peg Bradley-Doppes, athletic director at the University of Denver, who has served on NCAA committees for nearly 20 years. "It would help to have more checks and balances to make sure the money goes exactly where they say it’s going to go."

Areas of Autonomy

NCAA leaders have identified about a dozen areas where the Big 5 conferences could exert their autonomy, including financial aid, health and wellness, meals, insurance, time demands, and personnel.

The 65 institutions in those conferences are expected to move quickly to adopt rules allowing colleges to cover the full cost of attendance for players, an additional $2,000 to $5,000 over what many athletes now receive.

But critics say that much of that money might not go to the neediest players. And the changes would keep intact a system that has contributed to a variety of lawsuits against the association, including complaints that its leaders have neglected the health and education of players. The NCAA has denied those claims.

One shortcoming of the new governance system is that it would allow the most-powerful leagues to continue to control athlete benefits, rather than letting players negotiate for them, said Welch Suggs, an associate professor at the University of Georgia and former assistant to its president on athletics issues.

This month a federal judge is expected to rule on whether major-college football and men’s basketball players have a right to share in the revenue generated from the commercial use of their images and likenesses. If the ruling goes the players’ way in that or other cases involving their rights, Mr. Suggs said, all the autonomy in the world won’t save the NCAA from having to compensate players.

The new system will limit the big programs’ reach in a number of key areas. They won’t be able to enact separate scholarship limits for their teams, set their own academic standards, or be governed by a different NCAA enforcement process.

They also won’t have the authority to end other restrictions that have led to negative publicity, including on player transfers.

High turnover in the coaching ranks, particularly in men’s and women’s basketball, has contributed to hundreds of transfers in those sports in recent years. Under the current rules, players who want to leave must be granted a release from their institution and often must sit out a year before they are eligible to compete.

In March, after Kansas State University dismissed its longtime women’s basketball coach, a high-scoring guard, Leticia Romero, decided she wanted to leave. Amid speculation that members of the previous coaching staff were pushing her to follow them to a different institution, the university initially denied her request. Officials eventually allowed her to leave but only if she agreed to attend an institution outside the Big 12 Conference.

The issue highlights one of the rifts between the elite leagues and the rest of Division I.

Some observers see the "year in residence," which requires transfers to sit out a year, as one of the next fronts for a legal battle. They say the big conferences, which have faced increasing legal pressure themselves—the Big 5 conferences are named in a high-profile lawsuit alleging that they unlawfully cap player compensation at the value of a scholarship—favor looser transfer rules as a way to press home the competitive advantages they are expected to gain under the new governance structure.

"I would expect them to push for allowing more transfers to play immediately," John Infante, author of The Bylaw Blog, said in an email. But the smaller Division I programs are expected to hold the line, as a more permissive transfer rule could lead even more of their rosters to be raided.

An Unhappy Marriage

Critics of the changes say they could contribute to continued competitive imbalances within Division I. And they worry that the new system will cause many institutions to drop sports or to push to abolish NCAA sport minimums.

"I don’t see this as a happy marriage that will last," said B. David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University. "The money gap is too big and the power five are going to take what they can get."

Others are concerned that the power conferences will push changes, including one that would allow colleges to pay for players’ families to attend postseason competitions, that favor athletes in the high-revenue sports.

"If elite programs are going to address that issue, it should be addressed across the board," said Ms. Bradley-Doppes, the Denver athletic director. "It shouldn’t be any less important for the national championships in cross-country or gymnastics than it is for championships that make money for the NCAA."

The system also gives big departments opportunities to draw lines where many critics say they will have difficutly doing so. Among the rules they could consider: allowing programs to limit the size of their support staffs in football or letting students make money off their names, including as musicians.

But to many people, the success of big-conference autonomy hangs on whether athletes will be given more freedom away from the field.

Although some conference leaders have advocated such changes, including study abroad and true time off during the offseason, so far that hasn’t been a big part of the conversation.

"There’s no discussion I’ve seen of doing a better job of integrating players with the student body," Mr. Suggs, of the University of Georgia, said in an email. "In fact, at the Big 5 conference schools, all of these moves likely would further separate athletes from other students."