At the American Athletic Conference’s football media day in July, Commissioner Michael Aresco sought to assuage any fears that upcoming changes in how the National College Athletic Association is governed could hurt the teams in his league.
His comments came after a season that saw teams from the AAC – which includes universities that were in what used to be the powerful Big East Conference – finish in the top 10 and win national titles in two sports. On August 7, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors will vote to grant a greater level of autonomy to the five high-resource conferences: the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Atlantic Coast, and Southeastern Conferences.
The AAC is not among them.
"We hear that the new NCAA governance system, which allows autonomy in limited areas, will cause us somehow to be left behind, that resources of those conferences are simply too great,” Aresco said during media day. “I don't buy that for a minute and what we did this year proves it."
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In an interview after media day, Aresco admitted that "nobody wants to be left out of the room" where major decisions are made. "We should be in that room," he said.
Other institutions and conferences are worried that they will, in fact, be left behind – and that the new governance system is, as one Division I college president put it, part of a larger and problematic “stratification of college sports" that will put more distance between the richest programs and the rest.
'They are the NCAA'
In a hearing before a contentious U.S. Senate Committee in July, Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, listed several proposed reforms he'd like to see in college sports. They included guaranteed four-year scholarships, scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance, and better health care for athletes -- particularly those suffering from head injuries. Emmert's list was similar to those recently featured in open letters by the college presidents of the Pac 12 and Big Ten Conferences and in Indiana University's "Student-Athlete Bill of Rights."
The high-revenue conferences are the ones most likely to move forward on such reforms, Emmert said, so it makes sense to give them the autonomy to do so. They are, after all, the ones with the most money. The SEC – bolstered by lucrative broadcast agreements – spends $180,000 per athlete, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. In comparison, less-wealthy Division I conferences, like the Mid-American Conference, tend to spend around $50,000 to $60,000 per athlete.
In response, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and the committee’s chairman, said he didn’t believe that the colleges that make the most money from athletes would be the ones most eager to change the paradigm.
This most recent push for autonomy does have its origins in one of these reforms, Emmert said. In October 2011, facing a growing wave of criticism and litigation, he urged the Division I Board of Directors to adopt a $2,000 stipend that would cover an athlete's full cost of attendance. The board voted to adopt the stipend, but in December, 125 Division I institutions voted to override the vote, which scuttled the increase. Full cost of attendance is expected to be the first issue that the newly autonomous conferences vote on, according to the conferences' commissioners.
But, like Rockefeller, others remain skeptical that the proposed governance changes are really about helping athletes, as opposed to giving the most powerful programs more latitude to continue the free spending that has characterized big-time college sports for the last two decades.
Bob Kustra, president of Boise State University, said he believes the new governance structure is an attempt to pull away from “pesky mid-major programs” like his. Boise State beat the University of Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Boise State’s entire football budget that season was less than the salary of Oklahoma’s head football coach. Kustra said the upcoming changes are a "surefire way to kick off a race for larger athletics budgets."
"Of course this grab for money and power is couched in the noblest of terms,” he wrote in an essay that appears elsewhere on this site today. "It's all about the student-athletes and paying them beyond the scholarships because they generate revenue for the programs."
Kustra said the high-resource conferences now "pull the strings" at the NCAA, and that the changes in governance would "fix the rules" to allow those institutions to further outspend colleges with fewer resources.
"The NCAA cannot fall prey to phony arguments about student welfare when the real goal of some of these so-called reformers is to create a plutocracy of athletic programs that serves no useful purpose in American higher education," he wrote.
Whether there's an ulterior motive to the conferences' desire for autonomy, those colleges will likely face greater scrutiny if they don't push through the changes they say they're fighting for once autonomy is granted. Jeff Orleans, former commissioner of the Ivy League, said once the new governance structure passes, it will be on the presidents of colleges and universities in the five powerful conferences to "own up" to going through with the reforms. Colleges have long cited NCAA rules as preventing them from making substantial changes to what they can offer athletes.
“The interesting part of their story, for me, will be what happens when they can't any longer blame it on ‘the NCAA,’ ” Orleans said in an email, “because it finally will be inescapable that they are ‘the NCAA.’ ”
In the months before the vote, some of the conferences’ college presidents and conference commissioners, including the SEC’s Michael Slive and the Big Ten’s Jim Delany, discussed the possibility of separating themselves from Division I and creating an entirely new competitive level of their own. That possibility also popped up in correspondence between the conferences and the NCAA when a steering committee asked for feedback on the proposal.
If the idea of splitting into a "Division IV" was meant to be interpreted as a threat, it worked.
“The current proposal is not perfect by any means,” said Rich Ensor, the commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. “But it’s something we're willing to live with in order to keep the division together.”
The threat of the sports superpowers creating a new division – or even leaving the NCAA completely – is not new.
There's been occasional talk of such a split for at least 35 years, and concessions that give them more independence and power have often followed. In the early 1990s, the NCAA's attempt at promoting gender equity had conferences fearing for their football program budgets and threatening secession. A decade before that, the large football conferences discussed leaving the NCAA over their share of television contract profits.
"These crises come and go," said John Lombardi, former president of the University of Florida and the Louisiana State University system. "But eventually everyone makes a deal which preserves the integrity of the division so it can keep making money."
For the less-wealthy conferences, the separation of the five conferences from the rest remains a scary threat. With their departure, Ensor said, the remaining conferences could lose access to Division I championships, their sense of identity as a division, and, perhaps most importantly, the sharing of revenue that flows from those championships -- especially the Division I men's basketball tournament that has become one of the world's most lucrative sporting events.
How some of the revenue is distributed depends on aspects like performance and championship appearances, but there are also fixed amounts paid out to every college in the division. Each June, the NCAA sends every Division I institution $70,000 to be used for what it calls "academic enhancement." Conference grants are also evenly distributed, with each conference receiving about $250,000.
Receiving assurance from the steering committee that the new governance system would not alter the distribution of revenue was important, Ensor said.
"I think the historic issue that’s always presented to us is about continuing that championship access and revenue flow," he said. "But that seems to have been addressed. That's why we're comfortable with where we're headed."
Not everyone in the division is comfortable with the compromise. If the new governance system passes – which is expected to happen easily – the NCAA has effectively created a new division, anyway, said a Division I college president who spoke on the condition of anonymity. It's a "division inside a division," the president said, describing the growing gap between the conferences as “unnerving.”
"The NCAA is letting those five conferences do whatever they want," the president said. “The Division I colleges that are left out, they are now in a different stratum of American athletics. Do the athletes, the fans, the alumni realize that they may be pushed down to a different level of excellence?”
Similar, but less dramatic, comments were made by other university officials in the feedback provided to the steering committee. With "some reservation," the Atlantic Sun Conference accepted the proposed autonomy, but questioned how far the conferences would try to take the proposal in the future. While Aresco is not concerned about the AAC's role in the new NCAA landscape (he believes the AAC could one day become a sixth "power conference"), he said he understands why other, less-wealthy conferences might be worried.
"I do think they have legitimate concerns,” Aresco said. “In fact, some colleges within those conferences may even have the same concerns. Some of those who voted against allowing full cost of attendance are in those conferences. This is all sometimes a mixed message.”
The five conferences will see more than $300 million from NCAA tournaments and bowl games this year, but there can be great variation in how much is being spent on athletics at individual universities within those conferences. In the Big 12, for example, the big and low spenders are separated by at least $80 million. A straw poll conducted at the NCAA Convention in January found that 30 percent of administrators at NCAA institutions were opposed to granting autonomy to the five conferences.
If even some "power conference" institutions are concerned about their ability to match the most resource-heavy universities, then why did so many colleges effectively sign off on the changes with the governance steering committee?
More than fear, Ensor said, the culprit is a growing feeling of resignation.
“There is a resignation that those institutions are just in such a different place now in terms of financial resources flowing into their conferences as a result of their broadcast agreements,” he said. “It’s understandable that they want to push resources in a different way than many of the rest of us can afford. There’s a resignation that this is the way college sports are going and we need to just move forward.”
The Division I college president who asked not to identified said simply, "They gave up."