Today’s guest author is Julie Roe Lach, the commissioner of the Horizon League.
When the NCAA approved a new constitution and created the Transformation Committee in January 2022, the big question most asked among Horizon League members was, “What does this mean for us?” Or more directly, “How is the collegiate model changing and what will be the new cost of providing Division I opportunities?”
Division I members understand that we need to modernize rules and develop a holistic student-athlete model guaranteeing broad-based services and programming to student-athletes. In the midst of this modernization, athletics administrators, presidents and chancellors are seeking clarity around a changing landscape—transfer portal, NIL and Transformation Committee recommendations—while also creating future financial projections.
Many of the Transformation Committee’s 50+ recommended changes are feasible for most Division I schools. In fact, many schools and athletics departments were already enacting support services consistent with the recommendations. The pathway may now be more prescriptive (and expensive); however, no category is shocking and, more importantly, out of alignment with our values.
As we work with our members to prepare for change, our league formed a team of campus administrators who flagged five changes that are likely to have a significant staffing, financial or otherwise meaningful impact on our campuses. The five changes are:
- Student-athletes will receive medical coverage for athletic injuries for a minimum of two years after they are finished competing.
- Student-athletes will get scholarship funds to complete a degree within 10 years of departure.
- Student-athletes will have a dedicated pathway to clinical mental health services with limited wait times.
- The school will employ one full-time staff member within athletics whose primary focus is on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.
- Division I will consider eliminating limits on the number of scholarships provided by sport and only regulate roster size.
Based on early estimates, we believe the change that will have the most significant financial requirement is the first—mandating medical coverage for athletically related injuries for a minimum of two years following graduation or completion of athletics experience, including out-of-pocket medical expenses during the athlete’s playing career. We are still collecting data from our schools to forecast the financial implications.
The expectation to offer scholarship student-athletes the funds to complete a degree within 10 years of departure could also be financially significant, although speculative at this point. Of course, we want students to complete their degree, but we cannot yet predict how many students will take advantage of this opportunity annually.
For the third and fourth changes, our group flagged them as clearly significant because athletics departments will likely need to add full-time positions for mental health counseling and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. While our schools support the intent behind these recommendations, as evidenced by the recent investment by our Board of Directors in mental health alone, as written, additional resources will be necessary. Given the increasing counseling needs across our campuses, ensuring immediate access to counseling will lead to staffing costs and seems to discount the cross-campus collaboration that can occur for both mental health services and DEI initiatives.
As a very rough estimate, these recommendations categorized as “significant” could trigger additional costs ranging from $100,000 to $300,000 a year, with the possibility of extended medical coverage inflating that range.
The final recommendation—focusing on roster limits instead of limiting the number of scholarships—would likely cause a major competitive issue, giving richer schools the upper hand. This change, if adopted, would not be mandated, but the competitive pressure will drive financial pressures. The NCAA Board gave this recommendation a “yellow light” and reported it for “further discussion.”
To illustrate the impact, let’s use baseball as an example: Currently, baseball’s scholarship limit is 11.7 while the roster limit is 35. If the NCAA eliminated the scholarship limit, the competitive impact will be significant as numbers of student-athletes receiving aid in some sports will escalate among Power Five members, while others will be left discerning what roster size and scholarship model is feasible.
Several other recommendations triggered a moderate financial or staffing impact, especially when considered collectively. The requirement of athletics trainers to be “present” for designated sports and “available” in others could prove costly, and we are seeking clarity on current policies and staffing models from members. Also, recommendations prescribing categories that education is required for student-athletes and coaches (e.g., mental health, nutrition, NIL, financial literacy) will have a moderate impact. Much of this education is already occurring; the new expectation of an attestation just adds another layer of time.
This may seem like just paperwork, but it is not that simple. Most campuses will assign the education development and monitoring to existing staff members, most of whom already have a full plate of responsibilities, as opposed to additional staff members. As we experienced coming out of the pandemic, adding onto existing responsibilities often leads to burnout, which has long-term impact.
While I have not addressed many recommendations included in the TC report, in the major categories of Decentralization, SA Voice in Governance and Championships, the Horizon League supported the changes. The 11 recommendations related to integrating the student-athlete voice into all major areas of governance and ensuring senior staff oversight of SAAC activities will have a minimal impact, since we overhauled our governance structure in 2018 giving student-athletes a voice and vote.
Notably, there were several recommendations for championships to increase access, seed at least 50% of brackets and enhance travel experiences (and budgets) that are incredibly positive. For example, our league had teams the last two years who had to bus several hours because they missed the flight threshold by fewer than five miles. Similarly, seeding more of the bracket provides more comparable matchups instead of defaulting to geographic pairings, which often results in lopsided competition.
Once we get a firm handle on financial and staffing implications, the final step for us is to explore ongoing opportunities for collaboration across the league and with other leagues. For example, in 2022, we announced a league-wide approach to NIL education and the first-of-its kind NIL marketplace recognizing that we needed to create a pathway for opportunity for many student-athletes.
Similarly, how can we leverage the collective (no pun intended) of our membership to meet expectations around staffing to ensure mental health, DEI, comprehensive education and possibly health care coverage? Can we collaborate on every single issue? Not necessarily, but it is a good place to start, including collaborating with like-minded conferences to pool resources and partnerships.
Roe Lach was named Horizon League commissioner in 2020, after joining the HL in 2014 as deputy commissioner. Prior to that she joined Church, Church Hittle and Antrim, where she co-founded the sports law practice and still serves as Of Counsel, and worked at the NCAA, where she was vice president of enforcement from October 2010 to February 2013.