One of Their Own

Athletics directors are thrilled to see one of their own take a leadership role within the NCAA staff, but it's unclear what sway the new position will have and which concerns will take precedence.

December 19, 2014
West Virginia University
Oliver Luck

By hiring West Virginia University athletics director Oliver Luck as its executive vice president of regulatory affairs, the National Collegiate Athletic Association hopes to show how much it cares about what its members' top sports officials have to say -- but some wonder which voices among the NCAA's 1,100 institutions are going to be better heard with the arrangement and which are more likely to be drowned out.

During a press call on Thursday, Luck said he hopes to build "additional trust and confidence" within the membership.

"This is a seminal time period and I'm honored to be given the opportunity to move the mission forward for the NCAA, which I think is hugely important within American society," Luck said. "Certainly an institution of this size has some warts, or a soft underbelly if you will, but I certainly think this is absolutely something worth fighting for."

Luck’s new role brings all of the national office's regulatory functions -- including academic affairs, eligibility, and enforcement -- together "under one umbrella,” the NCAA said. Mark Emmert, the association's president, first announced the position when the NCAA's chief operating officer retired in August. Luck will effectively replace the COO, whose retirement was taken as an opportunity to restructure the NCAA’s staff, eliminating that position to create the new regulatory affairs role.

Many college sports leaders this week said they were happy the position was filled with an athletics director.

“I think there’s been a criticism for some time that the hands-on operations of an athletic department, and the complexity of that, wasn’t fully understood by many of the NCAA administrators,” said Richard Ensor, commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. “This seems to be a good-faith effort to find someone who can help remedy that.”

Bob Kustra, the president of Boise State University, said hiring Luck signifies a “healthy move in the right direction." Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said “it was critical” for the NCAA to fill this role with someone who has executive experience in college sports.

And Michael Aresco, commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, said Luck will serve as a “conduit for schools and a good source of input on the side of athletic directors.”

On Thursday, Luck said it was important for the NCAA to speak as "one voice," but Patrick Harker, president of the University of Delaware, said he’s not convinced that an athletics director from one of the 65 high-revenue sports programs in the so-called “Power Five” conferences can serve as a voice for everybody. 

“It’s great to have an athletic director, sure,” Harker said. “But there are athletic directors other than the ones in the Big Five.”

How Much Sway?

Luck supports paying college athletes for the use of their likeness, finding ways to transform Olympic sports into revenue generators, and scheduling fewer games on weeknights. He has also been outspoken about issues that are of particular concern to the “Power Five” conferences. Earlier this year, the five leagues were granted a greater level of autonomy to vote on specific reforms, including allowing full-cost-of-attendance stipends, offering four-year scholarships, and providing better health care for athletes.

At the time, several lower-revenue institutions spoke out against the change in governance. On Thursday, Luck said he was excited to take the job right as the new governance goes into effect. “It’s a great new structure that will enable legislation to pass more easily,” he said. “It’s a better system than the somewhat unwieldy system of the past.”

Peter Roby, an athletics director at Northeastern University who has described the stratification of college sports as a “monster,” said that Luck and his staff must remember that there are 1,000 institutions in the NCAA outside of the autonomous leagues.

“The issues here are broader than just 65 schools,” Roby said. “The issues we face impact 351 schools in Division I, 1,100 across all divisions. There are important issues at all levels of the NCAA. People at that level have to deal with all of it.”

During the press call on Thursday, Luck said he “understands the challenges faced by schools” outside of the five higher-revenue leagues, adding that he thinks a "balance needs to be struck."

Harker, who was one of just two Division I board members to vote against autonomy, said that balance hasn’t been found yet, and that too much of the conversation taking place within the NCAA is focused on money, including the issues Luck has spoken in support of.

Harker’s not interested in turning Olympic sports into revenue generators, he said, because he doesn’t believe any college sports should be viewed that way. What would be considered revenue-generating sports at larger institutions, Harker said, certainly don’t generate revenue at colleges and universities such as Delaware.

Luck on Thursday was bullish about sharing revenue generated by the use of an athlete’s name and likeness. Members of the NCAA are split on the issue, with many worried it endangers -- or destroys -- the association's theoretical amateurism model. A judge ruled earlier this year that NCAA rules preventing college athletes from profiting on the use of their names and likenesses violate federal antitrust law. The ruling does not require revenue sharing, but allows institutions to share a limited amount of it with athletes.

“It’s a fundamental right each of us have, to control our name and likeness,” Luck said. “It’s certainly something I’ll be able to have a dialogue about with the legal staff as well as the external staff to better understand how we can continue to move that along.”

But it’s not clear how much sway Luck will have in his new position. Luck’s opinion on issues such as name and likeness are actually in opposition to Emmert’s and the NCAA’s official stance. The NCAA is, after all, still appealing the O'Bannon decision.

Luck said he hasn’t talked about the issue with Emmert yet.

Furthermore, NCAA rules and regulations are decided upon by its member institutions, not the staff. Emmert made that especially clear during a U.S. Senate hearing earlier this year, saying that he and his staff lack the authority to enact many of the changes he’d like to see in college athletics.

“Even so, Luck will still have influence on the process,” Ensor said. “You can jump-start conversations when you’re in that leadership role.”


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