Choose your demise - drowning or nuclear weapon: NCAA governance changes inevitably lead to the same place
The numerous problems facing the NCAA today – driven by record levels of financial support and commercialization - can be traced back to 1996 when the NCAA abandoned a “one school, one vote” governance system in which each member institution had an equal voice in NCAA decision-making legislation. A February 2002 NCAA News article written by then San Diego State Director of Athletics Rick Bay outlined many of the challenges that would emerge from the current governance model. Amazingly Bay’s article states that the primary driver of the change from one school, one vote "was to placate the big conferences and keep them from bolting the NCAA and establishing their own governance structure." While there is no question that the environment today is far more challenging than nearly twenty years ago, the same negotiation stance - what some people are referring to as the "nuclear option" - is being used to once again obtain more governance power.
Past is prologue and the current NCAA governance proposal further expands the power of five conferences with decision-making driven by: 1) disparate resources and 2) a mission to provide ever more financial resources, championship opportunities and television exposure for their member schools. No question there is a need to permit the conferences facing the greatest legal threats to act in their own interests. The decision to pursue a $2000 cost of attendance stipend which was rejected by the membership (including by institutions who come from the five power conferences) and the high level political arm twisting needed to permit by a razor-thin margin multiple year scholarships is being used as evidence that these institutions need more control. But giving additional power to the same institutions responsible for the current state of affairs is incredibly ironic.
Autonomy driven by resource capabilities at the campus level is an idea whose time has come. But blind pursuit of this goal completely distorts the NCAA as a membership organization (labeling something compromise doesn't necessarily make it so). The requisite inter-relatedness of the 350+ Division I members around important issues such as scholarship limitations and transfer rules will suffer when dictated by five conferences who will continue the consolidation of resources and power for themselves. The current proposal to change NCAA governance facilitates this consolidation via two paths:
1) Expanding disproportionate representation. Less than 20% of the institutions will have 37% of the voting power under the new model. Keep in mind that these institutions already have the greatest power on matters that affect all institutions.
2) Providing “autonomy” to the same 20% of institutions. Under this change the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, PAC 12 and SEC get to do two things – establish the matters of greatest importance to them (decided from a process they already control in #1 above) and once those matters have been established, make decisions with no influence whatsoever from outside of this block of schools.
Choosing ONE of the two options above is barely palatable but one can understand why it is being sought. Choosing both is gluttonous. If autonomy is the desire then the categories where autonomy is important should be agreed upon and the remaining topics should return to a one school, one vote model. If legislative power is the preferred route, then that should be adopted using a model derived from the current approach with more significantly weighted voting - not by carving out additional categories with no voice for all institutions.
To use both models makes a mockery of any concept of NCAA shared governance (the upside is we can finally stop the “we are the NCAA” banalities) and creates a “go along to get along” model where everyone follows the dictates of the select few schools with high resources who will systematically impede the upward mobility of those who aspire to the highest competitive levels. The choice should be between either expanded disproportional voting OR autonomy, not expanded disproportional voting AND autonomy.
Obviously change needs to occur but it’s hard to imagine these governance changes will take us to the promised land and fend off the various legal threats facing the Association.
Moses (you can decide who Moses is in this analogy) is parting the waters. As soon as the schools in the five power conferences get to the other shore, the waters will return to their previous place leaving nearly 300 other institutions who are trailing behind as casualties. No one (other than a maniac) wants to be accused of pushing the button for the nuclear option and ending it all. Unfortunately death by drowning or death by nuclear option isn't really a choice. But we will choose drowning - at least you can struggle and believe you have a chance of survival. Unfortunately no one made it out of the Red Sea when the waters returned.