Today’s guest columnist is Rick Burton of Syracuse University.
Following the wishes of its association members, the NCAA voted last week to reform its constitution, decentralize, and give more “power” to its three divisions. OK. But what does that really mean?
In some ways, I’m reminded of the 1966 anti-war movie King of Hearts that starred Alan Bates, a Scottish soldier sent to a deserted French town during World War I to defuse a bomb. Bates arrives to find an empty village populated only by the residents of the local insane asylum.
Bates’ character emerges as “the king of the fools,” and general mayhem ensues. Funny that. During the last year there were undoubtedly days when observers and participants alike were tempted to view the NCAA as an archaic kingdom where little made sense.
In less than 12 months, the NCAA lost the Alston Supreme Court case 9-0, saw state legislatures force its hand on name, image, and likeness (NIL), watched as football and basketball players secured one-time rights to transfer (without sitting out a year), endured a handful of football coaches receiving $100 million salary packages … all while ticket sales plummeted due to a punishing pandemic, and, in some regions (hello, Pac 12) a longer term decline in interest.
In the midst of this craziness, one question for the constitutional reformers now stands supreme: Is there an Alan Bates character coming to rescue the NCAA before outside forces impose new initiatives?
In private, many believe that person is SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, whose skilled leadership of a football-centric conference might make him the most powerful (and probably smartest, most proactive) person in college sports.
It’s not surprising he was selected as one of the co-chairs of the NCAA’s Transformation Committee. But can a lone conference czar provide a vision for all the resident inmates? Given an overwhelming rulebook and a surplus of bureaucratic committees, it would appear not. There are too many schools with a variety of unique conditions.
Consequently, the looming challenge of saving the NCAA (or defusing a federal judicial bomb capable of destroying the association) is one flummoxing nearly every pundit wanting to predict what happens next.
A new constitution suggests the individuals running Division I’s Board of Directors can now demand (and receive) more autonomy for the 358 schools (in 32 conferences) that, according to the New York Times, produce 96% of the $18.9 billion delivered by NCAA institutions.
One other way to view the numbers of the NCAA is remembering that roughly 90% of the NCAA’s operating revenues come from the annual men’s basketball tournament, which is populated exclusively by Division I programs, the most influential of whom reside in the Power Five conferences.
Those 65 schools (residing in the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12) carry the largest athletic department budgets and generally win the most Division I championships. They are the “pro” teams on the college landscape, and the NCAA’s Board of Governors knows that if those 65 were to pull away to build their own village, the revenue pillars that hold up the NCAA would crumble.
On the other hand, if the 65 were to secede, can these institutions of higher learning create rules that don’t run afoul of antitrust laws nor turn their athletes into professional employees?
On many levels, America loves what college sports represents. It gives alumni nostalgic moments and state residents a state team (or two) to root for. It gives the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee the bulk of their athletes for international competition. It provides networks like ESPN and CBS a wealth of content (not to mention story lines), and those networks in turn give monies to the NCAA or conferences that help underwrite scholarships for hundreds of thousands of students.
Attempting to serve everyone equally, however, is proving nearly impossible, and because of it, the NCAA continues to find its authoritative role under attack and its biggest members (schools like Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, LSU, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Oregon, Texas, UNC, USC and others) unhappy about each new association development.
Now, as cold winter days slide by, someone is always whispering at the water cooler how 32 or 64 of the biggest schools should break away to create a super league. These colleges can afford the costs of playing at the highest level and feature a donor base capable of shoving more poker chips into the middle of the table.
Assuming there were a 64-team super division, one is forced to wonder whether those fiercely competitive members would agree to spending caps, luxury taxes or other professional league devices (including collective bargaining for a player’s association) that attempt to ensure annual parity (or the appearance of parity) for avid fans.
That’s a massive leap of league construction faith, and since no one has seen a “hero” marching up to the asylum to take charge, it seems unlikely. If that hero doesn’t appear soon, though, there’s a good chance the undetonated “bomb” explodes.
Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University where he serves as that school’s faculty athletics representative to the ACC and NCAA.