N.C.A.A. Change Is Coming, Maybe
Throughout Wednesday morning, some of the most important people in college sports settled into ballrooms on the seventh floor of the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan. There was talk and talk and more talk, forums and discussions and presentations. There were athletic directors and administrators and N.C.A.A. officials.
Everyone seemed to agree on a basic premise: N.C.A.A. change is coming, perhaps as soon as next summer.
The more everyone talked, though, the less grand potential reforms seemed. One commissioner, Karl Benson of the Sun Belt Conference, said during a panel discussion that he expected changes would look more like “tweaks.” He was not alone in that sentiment. But it seemed like a step back from the supposed impending “historic moment” detailed by officials in recent months.
The discussions took place at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, which featured a question-and-answer session with Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president; a panel of commissioners from the five major conferences; and a separate panel of five other conference commissioners.
If the N.C.A.A. collected $1 for every time the term “student-athlete” was used, it could have afforded to pay all players in all sports a significant stipend. At least enough for pizza.
There was plenty of the usual: calls for a more streamlined process of governance, for more direct involvement by athletic directors, for a thinning of the thickest rule book known to sports. Some of that will happen. The N.C.A.A. will change. But seismic, or even systemic, change seemed less likely than a day before.
Instead, three takeaways emerged.
■ The N.C.A.A. will not pay players, will not consider paying players and will not entertain the notion of paying players — never, ever, no matter how much revenue is generated. This notion came up a few hundred times, until it became clear that “student-athletes” would be paid only when, if, the N.C.A.A. is forced to do so by legislators or the courts.
■ Reform would probably not include a new N.C.A.A. division, but instead would grant more autonomy in making decisions to the universities in the five major conferences. This came up a few dozen times and tied directly into athletic directors’ being more involved. (The right idea, opposed by few.)
■ The N.C.A.A., the conference commissioners and officials from member universities feel unfairly picked on, or inaccurately characterized. They kept saying they had done a poor job of communicating what they do well, that they allowed the negative aspects of the narrative to overwhelm a greater body of work. This came up a few times.
On the last point, it was hard to sympathize. The reason the N.C.A.A. has come under more criticism than normal in recent years has little to do with a lack of attention to women’s golf, as one panelist suggested. The N.C.A.A. earned its critics, one botched investigation or unnecessary rule complication at a time.
It was hard, then, to tell whether the power brokers considered the system broken. They said it needed reform. And they said they would defend it and its honor and what worked.
We also heard a lot about student-athletes and how happy they were and how much they benefited from their scholarships. We heard about this from men in tailored suits who profit handsomely off college sports and whose universities and conferences cull revenue from the same.
“The countervailing voices of this notion that student-athletes are being taken advantage of has been the dominant theme and had played out pretty loudly,” Emmert said. “The reality is schools are spending in between $100,000 and $250,000 on each student-athlete.”
The forum lacked one important voice on this subject: the voice of the student-athlete, like those who wrote “All Players United” on their gear this season. Or the football team at Grambling that boycotted a game.
Contradiction dominated. There was much talk about how football teams would continue to build palaces for facilities, with rugs from Nepal and waterfalls in locker rooms; how that arms race could be explained by market forces, even as the markets for players continue to be suppressed.
“It was a lot of more of the same,” David Ridpath, an assistant professor in sports administration at Ohio University and a member of the Drake Group, a network of professors who lobby for academic integrity in college sports, wrote in an email from his office. “Still too much rhetoric and not enough action.”
There is a subcommittee of university presidents looking at changes, and there will be meetings next month, including two days set aside at the annual N.C.A.A. convention to discuss change.
What kind of change is what’s important for the future of college sports. At the heart of that is the notion of amateurism, of student-athletes. Jim Delany, the Big Ten commissioner, said asking colleges to pay players was tantamount to asking professional teams to require their players to enter into full-time study.
The N.C.A.A. does appear willing to budge here. Their argument trends toward the idea that amateurism should be upheld because if it’s not, so much else would need to change. That’s circumspect, not about right or wrong, but about logistics.
To go to an Olympic model, in which players endorse products relative to their value on the open market, would affect recruiting. To pay players beyond an increased stipend for the cost of tuition would strike at the heart of the idea that they’re students first. It would reinforce that the billions generated by college football and men’s basketball, in particular, demonstrate that they might be something else.
Those are the arguments, anyway.
“If college athletics establishes an employer-employee relationship, we will truly have lost our way,” said Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner.
Perhaps, with another round of grand reform either impendent or oversold, they already have.
This article was selected for educational purposes only.