LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- NCAA president Mark Emmert took to the stage at Marquette University Monday and, if he said nothing else, he at least articulated the stand the NCAA must take if it is to survive as the overseer of college sports.
"One thing that sets the fundamental tone is there's very few members and virtually no university president that thinks it's a good idea to convert student-athletes into paid employees. Literally into professionals," Emmert said, according to The Associated Press. "Then you have something very different from collegiate athletics. One of the (NCAA's) guiding principles has been that this is about students who play sports."
Leaving aside the regrettable grammar of that first sentence, we know, now, where the NCAA leadership stands. That's good, because I'd forgotten. It has shied from recent controversies with invertebrate timidity. The NCAA needs to draw a line. Unfortunately, lately it has been drawing lines with an Etch-a-Sketch.
Texas A&M quarterback (and Heisman Trophy winner) Johnny Manziel appears to have blatantly skirted its rules on autographs and extra benefits, but the NCAA accepted a negotiated settlement to make it go away. The organization, at present, seems to have neither the staff nor stomach for some of its biggest problems.
It's alternately aided and assaulted by media partners who want to see the most popular athletes on the field -- unless their transgressions are unearthed by their own journalistic work. In the case of Manziel and others, for instance, the NCAA is several steps behind the media in reporting on these cases. ESPN's Outside the Lines broke the Manziel autograph story, then spent weeks talking about his coming punishment as if it were a fait accompli. The NCAA, meanwhile, couldn't get at the same evidence the media had, and wound up suspending Manziel for one half of one game. Why, no one really knows.
It took the FBI and federal authorities 14 months to charge, convict and sentence former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro for a $930 million Ponzi scheme. It has taken the NCAA more than two years to determine Miami's violations from its association with Shapiro, and still no ruling has come down. During the course of the investigation, the NCAA has been forced to report that, yes, even it violated its own rules in an effort to enforce them.
Conferences have realigned while the NCAA has sat on the sidelines, powerless to influence events. They have pursued huge media rights deals, throwing the balance of power, or at least money, even further in their favor.
So before tackling the overriding issues that face college sports, maybe the NCAA would be best served by changing some of the nagging problems that beset college sports. These moves, admittedly, aren't going to fix things, but perhaps they would stop some of the bleeding, and begin to set the NCAA on a more positive course.
1). Share jersey, video game and other revenue. Before a court mandates that the NCAA do this, it needs to make the move itself, thereby allowing its own membership to set the parameters. When a player's jersey sales reach, for instance, the $1 million threshold in gross sales, the player begins to receive a percentage of what is sold, to be placed into an educational trust for his use. NCAA membership can determine the percentage, how the trust will work and when a player might borrow against it for legitimate needs. But this addresses the injustice created by schools making millions off merchandise sales but players receiving none of that revenue. Only a fraction of athletes are putting up big sales, and this solution allows the NCAA to compensate those, but to keep the money under control, to legislate for a baseline of fairness, and to target the compensation to those responsible. Similar solutions may be reached on revenue from video game likenesses and autographed items. The goal here is to maintain a control on the money to prevent abuse, but to allow those athletes responsible for generating big revenue for their schools to receive a cut of the money. It is not pay for play. It has the advantage of targeting the money to those responsible for the revenue, but can be deferred in such a way and earmarked by rule for educational purposes to limit the desire of athletes for a "quick score," financially speaking.
2). Mandate standard accounting procedures for NCAA athletic departments. This may seem like a minute bookkeeping point, but anyone who has tried to assess college athletic finances will tell you it's a big deal. How can the NCAA begin to understand its own financial situation if every line item on every budget is arrived at by a different set of numbers? As well, with the accounting standardized, the NCAA in the future will be better able to institute spending limits in certain areas. It can't tell a school how much to pay a coach or how much to spend on a stadium. But it's absolutely within its rights to determine with its membership how much schools can spend on recruiting, marketing and other matters. Consider: NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, the most successful professional leagues in the nation, all employ a mutually agreed-upon salary cap. College players don't get a salary, but what's good for the pro leagues should be good for colleges. Someone has to set limits. (A note. Andy Schwarz, who writes about antitrust issues on his blog, http://sportsgeekonomics.com/, says he doubts any attempt by the NCAA to impose spending restrictions based on cost-cutting or any other rationale, even if mutually agreed-upon, would stand up to a legal challenge.) Regardless, the move to standardize accounting practices is long overdue in college sports, and will serve to give the NCAA an accurate comparison of athletic departments.
3). Set football apart. Football already operates as a quasi-NCAA entity. The NCAA has no say in its postseason, and merely attempts to enforce a labyrinth of rules, many of which are no longer relevant. Football needs its own leadership structure and central authority. It would operate within the NCAA, but would be its own organization. It would have authority over conferences, veto power over further realignment, and its own enforcement structure. It also would employ a commissioner to oversee all football matters, including the postseason, with authority over conference commissioners on all things, including new media rights deals. If workable, the same structure could one day be set into place for basketball. But for now, football needs special leadership.
4). Reform transfer policy. At the moment, it's a mess. Every year, some players apply for and receive transfer waivers, while others do not. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski suggested this week that the policy needs to cleaned up. Either everyone can transfer without penalty, or everyone who transfers must sit a full season, no exceptions. It would seem unfair that in an organization where coaches pick up and leave schools every year without penalties that players should have to sit for one season, or may have their moves to certain schools blocked by coaches. At the same time, there is good reasoning behind the rule of sitting out for one season for a transfer. Even with that rule, transfer numbers are high. Either enforce the rule for all, or drop it for all.
5). Move toward a new division for elite programs, but make its standards reflect the NCAA's mission. If there's to be a new NCAA division for the richest athletic programs, it can't simply be a vehicle to funnel more money to athletes who are the most advantaged already. The NCAA must allow for other sports to be fully funded before providing stipends for the most well-off athletes. A baseball team currently fields 25 players with fewer than 12 scholarships. If the NCAA is about educational access, sports like baseball, swimming, tennis, track and field and others must be fully funded before you start talking about "full cost of admission" scholarships for football and basketball players. If schools are looking for a way to spend the money getting ready to pour in through new media rights deals, this is one way it can be done constructively. Regardless, any new top-tier NCAA division must be about more than paying football and basketball players. It needs to have stronger standards across the board for athletics, in line with its greater resources. It's possible, in fact, that where schools are making more from athletics, the athletes themselves may have greater rights.
Change is coming to the NCAA. Emmert has seen this, and now is trying to catch up to events. The problem, of course, is that the NCAA is made up of member schools that often do not want to do the right thing, led by presidents motivated by money and little else.
Even when the NCAA has done the right thing, like when it opened the door for multi-year scholarships, its membership hasn't always followed suit. Schools did not offer them, preferring to hold athletes in one-year deals that allow coaches to effectively cut players with little notice.
The NCAA is further burdened by rules like the NBA's age limit that simply use college basketball to enhance the marketing value of its incoming players. It can't do anything about that. A foray into the world of pay-for-play would only make matters worse. Emmert is right to resist those calling for schools to be able to pay players more, no matter what the form. There's a fundamental difference in allowing players to earn money, and paying them to play a sport.
The NCAA, and its membership, are going to have to work within limitations set by others, who don't necessarily have the best interests of college sports at heart.
"It's a dynamic tension that we really need to work on because it's at heart of part of what (we're) talking about here," Emmert told the crowd at Marquette. "Why would we want to force someone to go to school when they really don't want to be there? But if you're going to come to us, you're going to be a student."
That's the NCAA's line. But no one is certain whether the organization is able to stand behind it.