Monday, August 22, 2011

the NCAA Needs a-Changin'

Just when you thought the conference realignment wheel that was spinning furiously last summer had slowed down for a bit... bam, Texas A&M speeds things back up. Just when you thought the violations at USC, UNC, and Ohio State were showing the limits of how schools bend the rules... bam, Miami pushes the boundaries ten times further. And just when you thought the NCAA was starting to turn itself around and become more responsive and forward-thinking... bam, the necessity of it's existence is thrown into question.

It's somewhat telling that arguably the biggest scandal in collegiate sports history consists of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of instances of rules being flagrantly obliterated yet very few laws being broken. I don't make the comparison to condone the prostitution or the underage drinking, but I highly doubt that any of the parties involved are going to see any legal punishments for those transgressions anytime in the future. (Hell, they’re not even getting any points in the Fulmer Cup.) And yet the death penalty is a realistic possibility for the Miami football program. The whole situation, more than any other I can remember, shows the miles of gray area between the NCAA's rules and state/federal laws.

Aside from the ponzi scheme, legally did Nevin Shapiro do anything wrong? Did the players who took his money or took him up on offers of extra benefits? Did the school administrators who turned a blind eye? I haven't heard of any instances of law enforcement officials becoming involved in the case - their response seems to be a collective "meh". So according to them, in the scheme of right vs wrong, this whole situation is a blip on the radar. But when it comes to NCAA right vs wrong, this is about as far from right as a program can get. And that's a major problem for the NCAA. It always has been, and in some regards it always will be.

On one hand, I understand some of the NCAA's rules, such as the ones regarding academics. If an athlete isn't taking classes and is on campus just to wear the colors and compete, that somewhat defeats the purpose of having teams associated with schools. If the athletes are just mercenaries, why even partner athletics with the school at all? The recent beefing up of APR rate regulations is a good move, designed to put some focus back on the academic part of the partnership between the school and its athletics. So I get that they need to be student-athletes and the reasons for the rules there, as much as some programs might push the boundaries.

As for other amateurism rules, all the extra benefits regulations - what are they in place for? Seriously, it needs to be discussed at a deep, theoretical level and a big-picture viewpoint needs to be taken here. If it really is that important to the NCAA that student-athletes conform to amateurism rules, and they're going to take a stand on that and continue to make it a bedrock of collegiate athletics, then they need to understand the compromises they're going to have to take in return (namely the fact that rule-breaking is still going to be the norm).

Theoretically, I can understand some of the reasons behind trying to maintain student-athlete's amateur status. You don't want schools to get into bidding wars for star players during the recruiting process. But here's the thing - schools have tried to one-up each other for decades, whether it's promoting their facilities, gameday experience, draft or future playing possibilities, campus, lifestyle, etc. The smaller schools who would be at a major disadvantage if schools were allowed to pay players a salary are already at a major disadvantage because of all the intangibles that student-athletes, especially football players, receive. Sure, there might be a difference between amenities and flat out cash, but it's another one of those gray areas. And when you're talking about amenities, there's no way to level that playing field - ever. The schools with the bigger fan bases, deeper pockets, and nicer digs are always going to have an advantage.

So if the aim is to level the playing field in college athletics, that's a goal that's already unreachable. It's just the difference between the haves and the have nots. Is there anything the NCAA can do about this huge gap? Not really. It's pretty much stuck. There are some regulations regarding how a team gets to classify itself as division I-A as opposed to I-AA, based on attendance, teams fielded, scholarships, etc. So, in theory, they could create a new, official divide between the haves and the have nots. But that would get extremely messy, the non-BCS schools would revolt, nobody involved wants the NCAA to have an even heavier hand, etc. It's just not realistic.

On a related note, some people have theorized that some of the BCS schools might eventually break away from the NCAA and form their own body as a way to dissolve this tenuous situation, and while it's possible I don't think it's likely. Like the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten, the NCAA has been around for over a century and has weathered huge storms and changes in the collegiate athletics landscape. That's mainly due to the simple fact of what the NCAA is – it’s an organization of individual schools. It’s not as if the NCAA is some outside organization trying to impose regulations that the schools don’t want – the schools themselves ARE the NCAA. The president is a former university president and chancellor, the committee members are administrators from schools around the country, etc. All of those folks are much more likely to make big, sweeping changes to the NCAA than allow their school to break off from it completely. The only way a split will ever happen is if a majority of division I-A schools decide to do it all together at the same time, forming a new, different regulatory body at the same time. And that won’t happen until the conference realignments settle down – even though the conferences themselves have next to nothing to do with the NCAA, the issue of stability is a big one. The only conferences that are stable enough right now to lead their teams to believe separation from the NCAA is even feasible are the Big10, Pac12 and SEC. The others are still in flux, and we’re probably going to go through another major round of departures and acquisitions, maybe even getting to the proverbial 16-team superconferences, before leaving the NCAA becomes a possibility.

But getting back on track here, I think the big takeaway with this whole situation for everyone involved is that fixing the issues and problems that arise from the system currently in place is no longer good enough - the NCAA as a whole needs to be thoroughly examined, assessed, and changed. Part of this has to be a huge expansion of the number of employees. Sure there’s a lot of committee members from all over the country who have other full-time jobs at colleges and university – legislating and designing rules are fine for them, and in fact they probably should be the ones deciding how things should be run.

But as for the enforcement officers, it’s a well-known fact that there’s only 23 investigators on the NCAA staff. Minimum, they need one for each Division I-A FBS school, not necessarily focused on a single school or based at a certain campus, but simply so that there are enough enforcement officials to handle the workload. We all know that for every Miami, Ohio State or USC that gets caught, there are dozens more that don’t, and the visibility of collegiate programs combined with the media’s ability to report on possible infractions had significantly easier in the last decade to spot and police possible violations. Where should the NCAA get the money to pay for all these new enforcement staff members? Deduct it from the payouts to each school during the year. (If you look at it from two different angles, there’s no way Alabama is going to support reducing it’s take a bit to beef up enforcement on its own program. But to beef up enforcement on Auburn’s program? I’m sure they’d gladly pay then.)

Other than that, I don’t know that there’s a definitive answer for what the NCAA should become or how it needs to change. That’s going to be up to the presidents, commissioners, and members of the individual schools. But they have a lot of gray space to work with, and major changes are going to be necessary if only to start to mend their dismal reputation.

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