In N.C.A.A.’s Varied Landscape, Some Open Floodgates While Others Fear Drought

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In N.C.A.A.’s Varied Landscape, Some Open Floodgates While Others Fear Drought

JANUARY 18, 2015
OXON HILL, Md. — At the annual N.C.A.A. convention over the weekend, the trendiest color was black.

That was the color of the lanyards given to delegates from the so-called Big 5 conferences — the Atlantic Coast, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pacific-12 and the Southeastern — which on Saturday afternoon raised scholarship values by several thousand dollars to cover the full cost of attendance and passed several other landmark changes.

But the voting session on matters of autonomy, as well as a robust discussion beforehand, was closed to all those with lanyards of different hues. Other than a few top N.C.A.A. officials, the only group outside the Big 5 allowed into the ballroom was the news media.

“Take good notes,” said Tom Yeager, commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association, “because I can’t find out what’s happening.”

Kathy DeBoer, executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association, asked a reporter, “Can you tweet it?”

The session’s exclusive nature was a microcosm of the paradox in which college sports’ governing body finds itself.

Perhaps the N.C.A.A.’s greatest strength as it strives to uphold the amateur model is its size, encompassing more than 1,000 institutions across three divisions that take part in sports as varied as football, women’s basketball, gymnastics and water polo. That breadth lends credibility to the N.C.A.A.’s claim that its athletes are, as the credo goes, “students first.”
In his state-of-the-association address Thursday, Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, spoke of the “sliver” of athletes who play top-tier football and Division I men’s basketball and a vast majority who do not.

“As you collectively and each of your governing bodies make decisions, we need to make sure that the success of the 3 percent doesn’t come at the cost of the 97 percent,” he said.

Yet in response to lawsuits, outside critics, a unionization drive and the threat that the five richest conferences would form a new, autonomous division, the N.C.A.A. has acknowledged that the 3 percent are different, and it has treated them differently.

By allowing privileges for its richest conferences and most popular sports, the N.C.A.A. risks confirming some of the legal theories being deployed against it. The decision in the Ed O’Bannon case, barring the N.C.A.A. from denying athletes the right to make money off their names, images and likenesses, concerned only top football and Division I men’s basketball players. And a broader lawsuit, which seeks to establish a free market for athletes, says it targets those two sports because they are, “combined, among the most lucrative products in U.S. sports.”

Closing the autonomy meetings to other conferences — including ones that might wish to adopt the legislation — might have been an unforced error.

“It doesn’t create the kind of camaraderie and sense of cooperation that there should be,” said Mike Aresco, the American Athletic Conference commissioner.

Autonomy is only the most obvious manifestation of the N.C.A.A.’s new course. Another recent instance was the association’s announcement that it would permit the College Football Playoff to reimburse athletes’ families for travel expenses and would allow reimbursements for the Division I men’s and women’s basketball Final Fours.

Emmert said that the decision had been influenced by the high visibility of the Division I men’s basketball tournament.

“While there are 87 other championships the N.C.A.A. conducts, none of them are revenue producers in the same way, of course, that the men’s championship is,” Emmert said.

Many fear that spending more resources at the top could cause harm closer to the bottom, leading to what DeBoer called a “Division I Hunger Games,” with several sports liable to be reduced or cut.

“This is going to change the complete landscape,” said Jay Jacobs, Auburn’s athletic director. “There are going to be fewer opportunities and more conversations about numbers of scholarships, including in football.”

The loudest dissenter to the new N.C.A.A. normal was Boston College, an A.C.C. member, which cast the only vote against giving athletes the full cost of attendance.
A private institution that does not publicly release financial numbers, Boston College is based in a region generally more interested in professional sports. In 2011, Forbes reported that the college’s football revenue was dwarfed by that of universities in the other major conferences.

“Boston College is concerned with continuing to pass legislation that increases expenses,” the associate athletic director Chris Cameron said in a statement Saturday.

Yet it may ultimately be more difficult for the N.C.A.A. to cling, even rhetorically, to the notion that all its colleges and athletes are roughly equivalent. Some sports, and some teams, are more popular and therefore more profitable than others.

“These guys have earned it; I don’t begrudge them that,” said Yeager, the Colonial Athletic commissioner. “The scope of their programs — dramatically different.”

He added: “The difficulty is, you can’t manufacture interest. It is what it is.”