Will restructuring the NCAA change the balance of power?

Published 04 December 2014 | Authored by: John Wolohan

In October 2014, it became official: changes are coming to theNational Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which is made up of over 1,200 colleges and universities in the United States and is divided into three divisions.1 What those changes will be nobody involved in college sports really know for sure, so it is a nervous time for a lot of schools. This article will examine what we do know and what the impact will be of a restructured NCAA.

First, the 65 schools from the Power-Five conferences, those conferences that generate the most revenue for the NCAA and college sports, are unhappy with the current structure of the NCAA. Under the current rules contained in the NCAA Division 1 Manual 2013-2014 (“NCAA Manual”) , each of the 345 colleges and universities in Division I has an equal vote on legislative changes (see section 5.3.2.2.1).2 For example, a few years ago, when the schools from the Power-Five conferences wanted to provide a $2,000 cost of attendance benefit to scholarship athletes, the other members of the division, who did not believe that they could afford the extra benefit, voted down the proposal.3

Also under the current rules, it doesn’t matter if the school has $100 million budget, big schools have the same power as those schools with $10 million dollar budgets (see section 5.3.2.2.1 of the NCAA Manual). However, since the smaller schools far outnumber the 65 schools from the Power-Five conferences, these schools actually have more voting power and have traditionally been able to control the agenda. As a result, under the proposed new governance structure, the 65 schools from the Power-Five conferences, the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, will be granted greater autonomy and flexibility to make decisions involving athletes, finances and the running of big-time college sports.

 

Proposed Changes / Restructuring

Cost of attendance benefit

While some of the proposed changes to college sports are the result of various antitrust lawsuits4 the NCAA and the Power-Five conferences are facing, some are issues that the Power-Five have been attempting to implement for years. For example, one of the first changes being proposed is the implementing of a $5,000 per year cost of attendance benefit to scholarship athletes. Although, it is still unclear who will receive the additional cost of attendance allowance, just those athletes from football and basketball or every athlete, even those from the non-revenue generating sports.

The cost of attendance benefit is just one area that schools are looking at to improve the student-athlete experience, some of the other areas are as follows.

Health and wellness

Under the current rules, every college and university is free to create its own policies regarding health insurance coverage (see section 3.2.4.8 NCAA Manual). Certain colleges assume responsibility for all medical claims, related to athletics, while others do not. Currently, there is no national regulation regarding this subject.

However, while every college and university is free to implement its own policies regarding health insurance coverage, no school provides college athletes with health benefits after they leave the school. As a result, a number of athletes are left with debt over their medical bills. To protect athletes, starting next year, some schools will for the first time begin offering medical coverage for students who have left the university. Under the current system, once an athlete leaves the university, he or she is required to pay their own medical costs – even if the injury is directly related to his or her participation in athletes for the school. 

However, under a new proposal, Pac-12 schools will be required to provide direct medical expenses for documented athletically related injuries to former players for a period of four years after they leave their team or university.

Meals and nutrition

Under the old rules, as part of their scholarship, athletes were allowed to receive three meals a day or a food stipend. However, after the University of Connecticut men’s basketball guard Shabazz Napier, after winning the NCAA National Basketball Championship complained to reporters that "there are hungry nights when I go to bed starving,5 the NCAA changed its meal policy to allow Division I schools to provide athletes with unlimited meals and snacks.6

With athletes’ busy schedules, providing them with unlimited meals and snacks and the flexibility on when they can eat is clearly a positive step. As with almost everything in college athletes, however, schools are already trying to use the new rule as a recruiting tool by opening athlete only cafeterias, athlete fueling stations and even food trucks. 

Financial aid

Beginning in 1973, the NCAA passed legislation (see section 15.3.3 of NCAA Manual) reducing athletic scholarships from a guaranteed four years, to only one-year, renewable scholarships. The NCAA passed the legislation, it claimed, because a high percentage of athletes were quitting their sport but staying in college with their irrevocable scholarships. Critics however argued that making it one year was really about giving school the ultimate mechanism to control scholarship athletes because there was always an implicit threat that it could be taken away.

Beginning with next year’s incoming students, two of the Power-Five conferences, the Pac-12 and the Big Ten, have announced that they will begin offering guaranteed four-year athletic scholarships to athletes who are in good academic standing7. This is significant, for a couple of reasons. First, since the current belief is that the athlete’s scholarship can be taken away by a coach if he or she doesn't like the way the athlete is performing on the field or court, this corrects that perception. Second, it also gives the Power-Five schools another recruiting tool. Under current NCAA rules Division I schools are only allowed to offer 85 scholarships to football players at any one time (see section 15.5.6.1 of NCAA Manual). Therefore, by offering guaranteed four-year athletic scholarships, the Power-Five conferences are setting themselves apart from the other schools. If the smaller schools, those not from the Power-Five conferences, do follow the bigger schools and offer guaranteed four-year athletic scholarships, they are going to be stuck with the additional costs.

Insurance

While the NCAA provides insurance for all athletes, the insurance does not cover the loss of future earnings.8 For example, after winning the Heisman Trophy for being the best college football player in 2013, Jameis Winston purchased a $10 million disability and loss of value insurance policy before playing the 2014 season for Florida State University. While any student has the right to purchase such an insurance policy, what is different with Winston’s policy is that Florida State is paying the $55,000 to $60,000 premium from the school’s Student Assistant Fund.9

Career pursuits

Another change the Power-Five conferences are looking at is allowing athletes to return to allowed to return to school to complete their degree. Under current NCAA rules, once an athlete leaves school to pursue a professional career, he or she is no longer receive aid to finish his or her degree (see section 15.01.5 (a) of the NCAA Manual).

Under new rules proposed by the Pac-12 and Big Ten, beginning in 2016-17, athletes who leave school “for a bona fide reason” will now be allowed to return to school to complete their degree and receive "necessary educational expenses" for remaining terms of the scholarship agreement.

Time demands

Under current NCAA rules, athletes are limited to 20 hours of “countable athletically related activities” (CARA) per week (see section 17.1.6.1 of NCAA Manual). The CARA total also cannot exceed four hours per day and the players are required to have one day off every week. However, the fact that the players devote well over 20 actual hours per week on athletic-related activities does not violate the NCAA's CARA limitations since numerous activities such as travel, mandatory training meetings, voluntary weight conditioning or strength training, medical check-ins, training tape review and required attendance at "training table" are not counted by the NCAA.

Because of the excessive time demands for college athletes, the Pac-12 has appointed a task force to study the issue and plans to work with the other Power 5 conferences on the topic.10 However, some argue that the 20 hour rule needs to be modified for the specific sport. For example, is 20 hours enough time for an Olympic athlete? What about those athletes who want to compete professionally? However, since the main point of being at the university is supposedly to get an education, any additional time allowed practicing is time out of the classroom.

Increased athlete representation

Another area that will change is that athletes are now being offered seats at NCAA and conference meetings. For example, as part of the new restructuring, the NCAA has announce that although university presidents will continue to lead the 24-member Board of Directors, which oversees Division I sports, athletes and other groups will now have a vote.

Reporting to the board will be the Council, responsible for day-to-day operations of the division, assisted by a three-group substructure focused on academics, championships and legislation, respectively. Athletics directors would comprise the majority of the council, and two student-athletes will vote.

 

Potential Impact of Restructuring

Now that the Power-Five conferences have started to articulate some of the changes they would like to see in the future NCAA, one of the questions is whether some of the smaller conferences will be able to financially keep up with the bigger schools. Once again, one of the reasons behind the NCAA was that its’ legislation ensured that all schools were competing on a level playing field. However, as the bigger school begin to pass legislation impacting the relationship of athletes and their universities, it will not be long before some smaller conferences or individual schools, due to the additional cost, refuse to follow the lead of the bigger schools.

In addition, it has to be asked whether this is really just the first step in the break up of the NCAA. Currently, the NCAA performs two major functions for its members: it operates tournaments, and regulates members. By moving to an autonomy system where five conferences not only draft but administer their own rules, it could be argued that the Power-Five conferences no longer need the NCAA. In fact, many people involved in college sports believe that the smaller schools agreed to the new model because the bigger schools threatened to break off into a new Division within the NCAA or potentially leave the NCAA altogether. Since the NCAA, and the majority of Division I colleges generate the vast majority of their revenue around the Division I Basketball Tournament, “March Madness.

Any threat to create a separate division or leave the NCAA, and eventually take all the television money with it, has to be considered seriously by the other schools. However, while the smaller schools agreeing to allow the bigger schools more freedom in making their own rules may have delayed the divorce, the marriage is still on shaky ground and the basketball tournament is probably not enough to keep it together. For example, college basketball tournament generates $800 million a year, however, the Power-Five conferences only see about $200 million of that. By breaking away from the current, Division I or the NCAA altogether, the 65 schools would be able to produce the same, if not more money, per school, without having to distribute any money to schools from the non-power conferences.

 

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About the Author

John Wolohan

John Wolohan

John Wolohan is an Attorney and Professor of Sports Law in the Syracuse University Sport Management program and an Adjunct Professor in the Syracuse University College of Law. In addition to being one of the lead editors of the book "Law for Recreation and Sport Managers" by Cotten and Wolohan, John has been teaching and working in the fields of doping, antitrust, gaming law, and sports media rights for over 25 years.

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