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Larry Scott

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For the first time in a while, the idea that the biggest and richest college athletics programs might circle their wagons and form a new, exclusive, best-of-the-best competitive body seems less like lofty speculation and more like an imminent necessity. Conference commissioners, football coaches and even academic watchdog groups like the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics have endorsed the idea in recent weeks.

On Thursday, Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch, who chairs the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I Board of Directors, said the "ambitious" goal is to approve a restructuring plan for the NCAA's top level at the board's August 2014 meeting. (Far less likely is the occasionally tossed-around theory that the “Big Five” conferences – the Pacific-12, Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast and Southeastern – will break away entirely from the NCAA.)

While the details of how exactly this will work have yet to be nailed down – for instance, whether and under what circumstances these programs would compete with the rest of Division I, and what rules they can set and how they would set them – the most likely scenario is some subset of the current Football Bowl Subdivision members forming a “Division IV” or “super division.” Those 10 conferences (plus the University of Notre Dame, in football only) compete within Division I, along with the less wealthy and less competitive members of the Football Championship Subdivision conferences.

Despite operational expenses for Division I programs ranging from $5 million at Coppin State University in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference to more than $134 million at the Big 12's University of Texas, they all play by the same rules (except in football) when it comes to recruiting, scholarships, academics and safety – and the richest programs say this is holding them back. The simplest and most widely cited example of this is the $2,000 stipend rule, which would have given athletes more money to cover the full cost of attendance. The Division I Board of Directors pushed the rule through in 2011, only to see “the have-nots” (as the less-wealthy programs are sometimes referred to) come out in droves to overturn a provision that clearly would have put them at a disadvantage.

And while this and other potential rules changes are often framed in the context of improving "student-athlete welfare," there's no denying that they would also make the biggest-spending programs even more dominant (and almost certainly bigger-spending). Athletics directors know that, for instance, offering more scholarships and covering full cost of attendance would be a strong draw for star recruits.

Due to the extreme variation in size and wealth of programs, this sort of gridlock is common in Division I. In addition to talk of changing the governance structure, there’s talk of changing who exactly governs. Right now, that’s college presidents and only college presidents – and their lack of understanding of the complexity of athletics is partly to blame for that gridlock. 

Inside Higher Ed spoke with Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, who, compared to his peers in the Big Five conferences, has been middling in the severity of his calls for change. But, along with the others, he made pointed comments at recent conference media days that the status quo will no longer do. Excerpts of the conversation follow.

Talk a little about your vision for the future of NCAA governance, what you think is important and how things should transpire from here.

I’d like to see some evolution in terms of NCAA governance on a couple of different levels. I’d certainly like to see, for the high-resource schools and conferences, more autonomy and flexibility in policy making, because I’ve certainly come to the view that one size does not fit all, and the notion of “even playing field” has been an impediment to high-resource schools doing a better job supporting student-athletes. So fundamentally, we want to support student-athletes better. I think there is some rulemaking and restrictions that should apply differently, simply put, to schools with $60 million to $100 million budgets than they would to schools with less than $10 million budgets.… I’d also like to see that all happen within the big 10 [conferences], if possible, of the NCAA, and an overarching governance structure for the NCAA that includes more outside perspectives and practitioner involvement, but still maintains the idea of presidential control. I think it’s a concept that makes sense, but presidential control in my view can be maintained without presidential exclusivity.

Have you thought at all about what kind of other structure you would have? You want to maintain the idea of presidential control, which would mean still having presidential input. But who else is it important to have at the helm?

I think these discussions tend to get overly complicated. To me, there’s two simple concepts that are tried and true and proven that could be applied here. One is simply changing the makeup of the NCAA board to be a more diverse group without giving up the notion of presidential control. You could certainly have a significant population of presidents on the board, but you could have outsiders on the board. You could have athletic directors, you could have commissioners, you could have faculty representatives, you could have coaches represented. You could ensure that there’s presidential control for a diverse board that brought practitioners’ viewpoints and different helpful perspectives, which would simply make the board more effective and more credible.

The other thing you could do – and these are not mutually exclusive -- is you could follow the model of the Bowl Championship Series and the College Football Playoff, where you continue to have a board made up just of presidents, but define better -- to more high-level and supervisory -- their role, and create a managing board. In the BCS and CFP, that’s strictly commissioners. And in this model it doesn’t have to be exclusively commissioners, it could be commissioners, outside business people, outside athletic directors, faculty. It could actually be more the management running the day-to-day affairs of the NCAA, with certain decisions needing to go to presidents for ratification, and they could have veto power. That would get presidents out of having to make decisions that might be outside their comfort zone and their area of expertise, but still preserve the important notion that I support, of presidential control at bottom…. And in those instances you could dismantle some of the very complicated committee and cabinet structures that exist currently, but are considered anemic or ineffective.

How do you see athlete welfare factoring into this entire discussion?

On a lot of different levels. I think what’s brought this conversation to a head, to a large extent, is the desire from the high-resource schools and conferences to re-look at the scholarship rules. We want to cover the full cost of attendance rather than just the more limited definition of what scholarships are allowed to cover today [room and board – no living or textbook expenses, etc.]. To be clear, we’re not talking about paying student-athletes. We are talking about using the resources that are available to take better care of student-athletes and make sure they’re not at a disadvantage compared to other students who can take on jobs during the school year, can work during the summer. I actually believe student-athletes are at a disadvantage compared to other students in financial respects -- other scholarship students. I think that’s fundamentally wrong.

The $2,000 stipend, on that note, has been kind of the main talking point for this, but it’s about bigger issues than that. What is it, in your view, that the major conferences are not getting that they need, that this would help them address?

Well, decision-making autonomy. Otherwise, right now that issue is still not resolved. It would have been resolved by now and we would have had a more generous policy in place benefiting student-athletes. So that’s just one issue. There are other areas where I’m sure we’d be up to make better progress -- things like minimum academic standards for student-athletes, amateurism rules, which need a fresh look. Because of the governance structure and every level of school needing to be on board, to a large extent, it holds those things up…. Number of scholarships that are awarded. Even when it comes to playing rules -- I sit on the Playing Rules Oversight Panel and I can’t tell you the number of times a rule comes up that would be about the safety of the student-athlete, and it gets delayed or rejected because not everybody can afford to do it. Well, does that mean that the schools that can afford to have a safer playing environment for the student-athletes shouldn’t be allowed to do it just because everyone can’t do it? My answer is no.

And when you talk about academic rules, are you mainly talking about APR minimums for low-resource institutions that aren’t able to keep up as well?

Yeah. I don’t want to get into the weeds of the specific policies, but I think the economic distances between schools and the vast differences between schools do hold up our ability for academic reform as well.

You’ve been less eager to call for immediate major change, and you mentioned you see it more as an evolution. Why not act now?

Well, I am for acting now…. The media reports were suggesting that this is likely to lead to some type of breakaway from the NCAA, and I just don’t believe it’s that complicated. And I believe there’s a sense of focus and urgency. I know the NCAA Board of Directors is addressing this topic at their meetings this month. I don’t see any reason why there can’t be proposals developed and decisions taken as early as the January NCAA convention.

Is there any sense of how things would work under a new division, or some sort of subset of Division I, how things would operate in terms of competition and rule-making? Because it seems like people want all the schools -- all the Division I schools -- to be able to continue to compete with each other, but the non-football sports to be able to make their own rules. Is that accurate, and is there any sense of how that might work, or is it still too early to say?

It’s still too early. Those are still some of the details we need to work out. I think we’re at more of a philosophical and principled stage right now.

Do you think that commissioners should also be seeking input from students and faculty?

Absolutely. I’ve always tried to make sure we get the input of student-athletes and faculty.

Do you have a sense of whether athletes and academics think this is a good direction to be moving in?

I don’t know yet, but I’d love to find a role for student-athlete representation in whatever structure that we have. I’d be all for that.

There’s obviously already a big concern, especially among the academics we write for, about the escalation of spending and the so-called arms race, and Oregon’s new football building is a good example of that. Would you see that sort of spending shooting up even further and faster under a new division?

I would not…. To the contrary, I would like to see more of the available resources going to support student-athletes, less going to buildings and coaching salaries

Because you would have different ways to incentivize students?

Precisely. Right now you’re limited on what you can do, therefore the available resources go to other places.

And is there any resistance that you’ve come across among the so-called “have-nots,” or even just the institutions with more mid-level budgets?

Sure. There’s prestige factor, there’s the aspirational factor about being part of Division I. I think we saw it with realignment and conferences to a degree. It’s important to be sensitive to the fact that as many schools as possible want to be considered at the top echelon of NCAA. Unfortunately, that’s resulted in, sometimes, schools that don’t have the resources stretching to either try to have football programs or get to a level of “making it” that’s not sustainable for them. So I’m not sure it’s the healthiest thing, but I certainly expect that there will be resistance to any further federation that comes with a new label that only a smaller group of schools and conferences might be part of…. and that has to be weighed up compared to the benefits.

What’s your perception of how the NCAA is or isn’t responding to this conversation?

I give NCAA President Mark Emmert a lot of credit for initiating the dialogue about governance reform. He brought in an outside consultant that’s been working for the better part of the year traveling around the country talking to everyone about it, so I think they very much have it on the agenda. But like a lot of things and reforms, it’s moved slowly and there’s not a lot of progress to show. I’m hopeful that the recent open discussion at the conference level and the role that our commissioners are able to play and our presidents are able to play in bringing some vision and focus to this will create a little bit more urgency and focus, which has been lacking.

The other thing I wanted to ask you about is enforcement. Does that play into this discussion at all to you?

Certainly, yeah. I think there’s a real dissatisfaction with the way enforcement’s working currently, and it’s certainly something the bigger conferences would like to be transforming.

Would that be something that the system would look potentially a lot different?

I think it’s too early to say. I don’t want to get too much in the weeds on what exactly the outcomes will be. But yeah, I think there’s some commonality about the current system being too slow, there being cultural issues around guilty-until-proven-innocent rather than the other way around, trial-by-media with leaks and what not, and other related concerns that are out there.

Anything else you wanted to add?

I think the only thing I’d say to kind of wrap around it all is, I want the overall discussion to be about what the future of college athletics should be and look like, not just what governance and how you make the sausage. I believe we must not only look at reforming the governance of the NCAA, but also at larger issues surrounding college athletics such as student-athlete welfare, enforcement, and the one-and-done rule in college basketball.

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