It's time to change or move beyond the NCAA

March 16, 2013 

It’s Selection Sunday, NCAA tournament time. Turn in your brackets Monday and let the fun begin.

But the arrival of this national hoops festival also points to a need for a serious discussion about the organization behind it, the National Collegiate Athletic Association. For while the tournament is a thing of wonder, the bigger picture of college sports offers less to cheer about.

The NCAA was created in 1906 at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt to stop fatal injuries in college football. Now it may be time for the president or Congress to intervene to stop the ineffectual NCAA from injuring college football and basketball.

The NCAA takes a hard line on minutia related to amateurism but seems oblivious to the money-besotted behavior of its most prominent members. NCAA president Mark Emmert, who took office in 2010 pledging to fix the unfixable, told the New York Times last month that getting governance right is elusive: “The frustration is you take two steps forward on the reform agenda and something explodes and you get knocked back.”

Worry and resignation

There is a widespread feeling that there is something wrong with the money and methods involved in major college sports, but there also is resignation that it can’t be changed. And many people don’t want it to change. Big money sports may force schools to bend their academic standards, but the games are fun and lucrative.

But everything has a limit. The NCAA tournament is pressing up against its own. What started as an eight-team tournament in 1939 grew to 32 teams then 64 and now stands at 68. Plans for expanding to as many as 96 teams were discussed in 2010 during TV contract negotiations that resulted in a 14-year, nearly $11 billion agreement with CBS and Turner Sports.

Would more teams, more rounds and more weeks of play make the tournament better? Eventually an expanding tournament, like a supernova, would reach a point where the gravitational pull of economics or the limits of the nation’s attention span would cause it to implode. The result would be a financial black hole in Indianapolis.

The same law of limits applies to college football. There are now 35 bowl games, so many that teams go to bowls with .500 records. Schedules have been padded to include one-sided games in which the big-league host collects a win and the small-time visitor collects a check. Still, the game grows. A playoff format will begin after the 2014 season. For the TV rights, ESPN has agreed to pay $470 million a year for 12 years, or $5.6 billion.

Divided control

The NCAA enforces the rules in all college sports, but it was effectively cut out of controlling the direction of the top tier of college football when the Supreme Court agreed in 1984 that conferences could cut their own TV deals. The NCAA profits from its tournament, but the big conferences get the rest. Thus, control of college sports is divided between the NCAA with its rules and its tournament and the major conferences with their TV cash. And the split is not serving the interests of the sports, the athletes or the fans.

Now reformers are looking at better ways to oversee college sports. Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said the commission is looking into new governance models and expects to hear the first reports in June. The search for options was prompted by concern that college sports face “mounting challenges that really are beyond the NCAA reform agenda and, in some significant areas, beyond the NCAA’s control,” she said.

Those who love college basketball and football would do well not to love them blindly. They should seek a new form of independent and credible governance. The NCAA is not up to the task. It is alternately driving or ignoring the trends toward expansion and the slide toward professionalism that weakens the sports’ collegiate appeal.

The colleges and universities that operate these athletic-entertainment programs are either public or publicly supported through government grants and their nonprofit tax status. The public has a stake in them, and it should have a greater voice in what college basketball and football should become – or what they should remain.

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