The National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I has never been a democracy. Even in the days when every college had a vote in the sports group's governance structure, the institutions with the biggest and wealthiest sports programs had more power than their peers, at times holding out (at least implicitly) the threat that if they didn't get their way, they and their television dollars might walk away and form their own association.
But as the gap between the organization's "have" and "have-not" sports programs has grown, so too has the sense among many smaller Division I programs that power is disproportionately and unfairly vested with several dozen universities with big-time sports programs.
“I think there’s been a history of questioning over the past decade,” said Carol A. Cartwright, president emeritus of Bowling Green and Kent State Universities and a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. At its October meeting , amid skyrocketing athletic spending and out-of-control and potentially unstable conference realignment, the Knight Commission recommended that the NCAA look into governance issues. “Maybe not in a way that’s quite as dramatic as it feels this time, but it hasn’t been a case where nothing has happened and suddenly it appears out of nowhere. It’s been growing over time.”
The long-simmering tension has surged to the surface this winter in challenges to rules changes (which were made with highly unusual speed) that would expand financial aid to athletes. So the timing seemed appropriate late last month when NCAA President Mark Emmert announced plans  to form a working group to examine the Division I governance structure.
“There’s an opportunity to improve on [governance], but I wouldn’t describe it as not working. We’re demonstrating that it can work by driving a lot of rapid change right now,” Emmert said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “There has been ... a great concern to try and make sure that there’s a good, broad representation among Division I in the decision-making processes, while simultaneously making sure that all of the various members and constituencies are finding that decision-making process satisfactory.”
Kyle B. Kallander, commissioner of the Big South Conference, which has no representation at the board level, put it this way:
“This is not about control. It’s not about reducing anyone’s authority or voting majority at all. We would fully anticipate that any changes would likely retain a majority for current FBS conferences. What we want,” Kallander said, “is more representation."
“It’s very difficult to get our presidents engaged when we don’t have somebody who’s right there in the room.”
How We Got Here
With representation on the governing bodies that control the NCAA’s direction skewed toward the biggest, wealthiest athletic programs that make up the 120-institution Football Bowl Subdivision, the rest of the association’s members – the 122 colleges in the Football Championship Subdivision and the remaining “non-football schools” – have for years had less say on the Division I Board of Directors and the NCAA Executive Committee, which oversees the entire association.
In 1997, as the big-time programs argued that their more numerous programs and athletes warranted more power in governance, the NCAA moved away from its structure of one institution, one vote, in which each college (at least in theory) had equal say on the issues. That was replaced with a federated system that put college presidents more clearly in charge of the association's governance and gave divisions more independence, with the aim of increasing efficiencies. Smaller committees were created to deal with individual items, leaving the board to handle big-picture issues.
The revamp also -- for better or for worse, depending on where your program stands now -- appeased the biggest programs, making leadership representative by conference. FBS institutions -- those formerly known as Division I-A -- got a majority of votes on the Division I Board of Directors , and half the votes on the associationwide Executive Committee.
In 2008, again to increase efficiencies, the NCAA created a Leadership Council of Division I athletics directors, faculty athletic representatives and conference commissioners, to advise the board on strategic and policy issues. It also formed a Legislative Council, charged with “considering every proposal in the annual legislative cycle with the caveat the Board can examine and act on any proposal it so chooses.” Unlike the board, each of those bodies has 31 members – one for each conference.
Despite FBS programs making up only about a third of Division I membership, they hold 11 of 18 board seats (one for each conference, excluding the three “independent” institutions, such as the University of Notre Dame, that are categorized under the FBS but don’t belong to an official conference). The FCS has four seats, and non-football-playing institutions have three (that adds up to seven of the 20 non-BCS conferences).
The most obvious recent (and ongoing) example of how this lack of representation can play out lies in the response of institutions to two signature pieces of legislation that came out of an August retreat of university presidents , which Emmert convened in hopes of making quick reforms to improve integrity, academic standards and financial sustainability in college athletics.
The speed with which the Division I board acted on those proposals – the retreat was in late August, and the board met and approved the legislation two months later – was unprecedented, and NCAA officials and presidents were quick to give themselves props . It was certainly warranted, to an extent; under post-scandal pressure from Emmert, who sought to restore public confidence in the association, the board seriously expedited a process that typically takes more than a year.
But as the board has crept back toward acting on specific items affecting operations at small programs and big-time sports behemoths alike -- such as the reform agenda it hammered out this fall -- it has become increasingly disadvantageous for some conferences not to have access to the discussions, their leaders say.
“That whole transition,” said Richard J. Ensor, commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, “has brought us to the point now where we’re looking at a very active board, very involved with the details of the operations, and where there’s a desire for all 31 conferences to be at the table because that’s where the bulk of the decision-making is now being made.
“If you don’t have somebody at the board to have input into the process, you feel as if you’re not represented,” Ensor said.
Not So Fast
Things came to a head this fall.
Across Division I, institutions generally didn’t take issue with the more stringent academic measures the board put in place: a higher minimum Academic Progress Rate, which the NCAA uses to measure classroom performance, and a new ban on postseason competition for those teams that don’t make the cut-off; a higher minimum grade point average that incoming freshmen must have to be eligible for competition; and a rule requiring students to take more of their core classes before senior year. (All that being said, the University of Connecticut has already requested a waiver  from the postseason ban.)
But two other measures have not been so warmly received. One would allow institutions, if their conferences permit it, to provide students with additional aid to cover miscellaneous expenses (up to $2,000 or the full cost of attendance, whichever is cheaper). The other would lift the one-year limit on scholarships and allow colleges to provide multiyear awards.
Under NCAA rules, if more than 75 member institutions request a legislative override, the board must reconsider the rule at its next meeting. If at least 125 colleges do so, the rule is automatically suspended. Proposal No. 2011-96, the “miscellaneous expense allowance,” received 160 overrides, while Proposal No. 2011-97, “multi-year grants,” received 82. The survival of the latter rule will depend on the results of an online vote this week of all 355 Division I institutions (if at least five-eighths oppose it, the legislation will die), while the former measure has been deemed moot as the board prepares a modified version to bring for a vote its next meeting.
Each institution that requested an override obviously had its own reasons for doing so, and they ranged from concerns about potential violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, to stockpiling of student athletes by the wealthiest programs, to lack of resources and competitive equity, to fundamental opposition to pay-for-play (though Emmert has insisted unequivocally that the miscellaneous expense allowance is not paying athletes for performing).
But regardless of the issue at the heart of any single override, the flood of opposition raises a question: Is this a sign of broader discontent?
Posed that question during a recent visit to Inside Higher Ed, Wake Forest University President Nathan O. Hatch, who also sits on the board, said the overrides indicate just the opposite -- they're evidence that the system works. The override process provides recourse for those smaller programs that might lack a voice at the board level, and as a consequence be faced with measures they don't like.
A majority colleges in the Big South Conference submitted overrides for both proposals; some related to the rules’ implementation process, others to their specific content, and still others to the cost issues. But underlying those complaints is a more big-picture concern.
“Some of us felt we really didn’t have much of a voice in it,” Kallander said. “My view is that if we had more dialogue and more involvement of the full membership in the process, it would seem to me that we could have avoided some of the concern or opposition to some of those proposals. Obviously, we don’t know.”
In part because of their involvement in the presidents’ retreat, Ensor said, the MAAC institutions largely support the cost of attendance and multiyear grant legislation, even though they're not keen on the idea of having to spend more money. But they want to be able to give consistent input, too.
"Those issues are important to us, so we’re willing to take some of these other financial pressures to see [Emmert’s] full agenda enacted. We see it as a package rather than the individual elements,” Ensor said. “Obviously Mark is pushing a very active board as a mechanism to achieve his agenda and we’re supportive of that, but we’d like to have a seat at the table.”
So What Now?
But with the review imminent, what will the board consider doing -- and how likely is it that it will give everyone the representation they want? The expectations of many FCS officials fall somewhere between cynicism and cautious optimism.
“I don’t know that there’s ever been a time in the last 50 years – maybe longer – that there hasn’t been change in the air,” said Patrick Nero, director of athletics and recreation at George Washington University, a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference (which has no seat on the board).
But now, Nero said, as the division has grown more crowded than ever, the question arises of how hundreds of programs with radically different sizes and budgets can even compete at the same level. As an institution, Nero believes, GW can remain competitive by – as all universities do – playing to its strengths. For GW, that means selling a high-quality education over fancy-schmancy athletic facilities. But when the board is making calls that affect the university’s ability to recruit -- for instance, with the cost of attendance rule, which GW voted to override -- it makes clear that just staying competitive isn’t enough.
(To get a sense of how institutional diversity plays out in competition, finances are a good place to start. By conference , NCAA revenue distribution for 2010-11 varied from $4.5 million for the Atlantic Sun Conference to $44 million for the Big East Conference. At the institutional level in 2010, NCAA data show, the differences are even more stark: athletic department budgets range from $3.8 million to nearly $144 million at the most mammoth of programs in the Bowl Championship Series. And not unrelated to inflating budgets is the conference realignment that shook up the association this year, with institutions vying relentlessly for a piece of the sports television market pie. As the Delta Cost Project pointed out at an October meeting of the Knight Commission , the five biggest leagues -- the Athletic Coast, Southeastern, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pacific-12 Conferences -- will receive $14 billion total through their own television contracts. The Delta researchers equated the total to the country with the 110th-highest gross domestic product in the United Nations.)
“I think we have a good voice on a good amount of committees, but there’s no reason we shouldn't have a voice on every committee,” Nero said. Yet the one that everybody’s most concerned about -- the board -- is the one where they’re all but silenced, at least for now. “We feel it’s necessary to have all 31 in the room.”
Robert Morris University President Gregory Dell’Omo, whose Pennsylvania institution is a member of the Northeast Conference, sits on the NCAA Presidents’ Advisory Group. That body is made up of officials from the 20 FCS conferences that, in any given biennium, have no seat on the Division I board. (FCS conferences rotate off every two years; before he joined the advisory group, Dell’Omo represented the Northeast Conference on the board through April 2011, when the conference rotated off.)
Dell’Omo first raised the issue of FCS representation when he joined the board about two and a half years ago. But just last month he presented a white paper at the board’s meeting, proposing the body modify its composition to allow one seat for each of the 31 conferences. While ensuring each conference would have a voice in deliberations, the votes would also be weighted to reflect the composition of the current structure of 11 FBS, four FCS and three non-football conferences.
“It’s more important that we’re all at the table,” Dell’Omo said, “than, I think, just having one person, one vote, or one conference, one vote.... I prefer one conference, one vote, but I’m realistic…. I think no one wants to really turn the tables too much. You have to be respectful of the diversity of Division I.”
While the issue clearly triggers some hesitancy among presidents, Dell’Omo said the idea went over pretty well. “In the past, it really got very little discussion at all,” he said. “Now I think it’s at least on the table, and people are talking about it.”
Whether the idea materializes remains to be seen.
“There’s been historical resistance on the board to make the room too big. They feel for whatever reason that 31 is an unmanageable number,” Ensor said, pointing out that it works just fine on the Legislative and Leadership Councils. “I don’t see why it couldn’t work on a board level as well.”
One concern that has reemerged in the wake of conference realignment is whether the BCS institutions, tired of being constrained by their less-wealthy counterparts, would join forces and form their own division. The idea, which harks back to before the governance reform of the 1990s, would give the biggest programs more flexibility in budgets and operations, and, should they pull away from the association completely, loads more revenue from the March Madness basketball tournament.
But few, including Emmert, to a point, seem to give credence to that theory.
"That's certainly not an issue that I worry about because as long as we, the association, are providing them with the kind of support they need to be successful, then it works well," Emmert said. Noting that the BCS programs want to see change, too, he argued that the best approach would be to allow for greater flexibility in the rules the division puts in place. "Trying to find one-size-fits-all solutions when you have colleges of 3,000 students and $5 million athletic budgets with a school of 50,000 students and a $155 million budget -- those are two very different kinds of enterprises, and if all the rules have to be applied identically in both of those circumstances, it's very, very hard to make substantial change."
And Robin Harris, executive director of the Ivy League, said other FCS commissioners aren't worried about a BCS rebellion.
“If they want to do that, they can do that. But we don’t think they’re going to do that,” she said.
Harris, for one, sees the governance review as a recognition that the structure isn’t working the way it was intended, but believes the review’s significance has been blown out of proportion. It’s a good conversation to have, she said, but in general, the system is still working.
“I think you generally have presidents in control, you generally have a supermajority for the schools that wanted the super-majority, so if they can all agree on the issues, they can dictate the agenda,” Harris said. “If they’re not agreeing, then yes, there can be fractionalization of the voting. But I still think the possibility for them to control the agenda is still there.”
In the end, most everyone believes, the important thing is that the division is unified.
“There has always been and will continue to be Division I members with greater resources than other Division I institutions,” Atlantic 10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade said in an e-mail, “and it’s the same for the Division I conferences. The amount of money institutions and conferences have to ‘spend’ does not solely define their existence. All of us in Division I are committed to the development, education and success of our student athletes, coaches, teams and staff. And we can all achieve success in many different ways regardless of the size of our checkbook.”
Nero put it succinctly.
“I still believe Division I will remain strong, and that we’ll remain together.”